Written and directed by Spike Lee
With Damon Wayans, Savion Clover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rappaport, Tommy Davidson, Mos Def and Thomas Jefferson Byrd
Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) is a Harvard graduate who now works at the CNS television network. Trying his best to fit into its white-dominated world, his ideas for black-oriented TV shows keep getting rejected, while his boss Thomas Dunwitty (Rappaport), who's utterly clueless about his casual racism, lectures him on his distance from hip street culture. Delacroix comes up with an idea that he expects to get rejected out of hand: reviving the minstrel show, complete with blackface. Although his assistant Sloan (Smith) is far more reticent about the idea, she goes along with himself. Discovering two performers tap dancing on the streets for spare change, he renames them Mantan (Clover) and Sleep and Eat (Davidson) and writes an outrageously offensive pilot episode for his show, now called MANTAN. But white America doesn't get the joke: the show becomes a major hit, winning Emmys and critical kudos, even as Sloan and its performers feel more and more uneasy about its racism. A "revolutionary" rap group, the Mau Maus (portrayed by real-life rappers Mos Def, Canibus, Charli Baltimore and token white boy MC Serch, who calls himself "1/16th Black"), decides to take direct action.
Lee's targets are undoubtedly worthy, with particularly biting digs at whites' appreciation for gangsta rap and black athletes for all the wrong reasons . ( I suspect Dunwitty is based on Quentin Tarantino, especially since he quotes him.) However, the issues raised by BAMBOOZLED deserve a more complex, less bludgeoning treatment. Lee's anger at the media's promotion of stereotypes (MANTAN being an obvious exaggeration of programs like THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER and THE PJ'S) comes through loud and clear. (Just to bring the message home for the 100th time, he plays Public Enemy's "Burn, Hollywood Burn" over shots of dead black men towards the end.) Obviously, blackface and minstrelsy are meant as metaphors for all stereotyping, yet by focusing so intently and specifically on them, the larger point gets lost. What's more difficult to figure out are Lee's ideas about what TV shows about black life should be or how artists can address its negative aspects without trivializing them for white consumption. I don't expect a set of easy answers, but I'd prefer something deeper than a loud statement of rage.
BAMBOOZLED argues against the fashionable appropriation of slurs and "negative images" by minorities (an issue as relevant to the lesbian, gay & bisexual - or should I say queer? - community as to people of color), placing a feeble, insincere defense of MANTAN as anti-racist satire in Pierre's mouth. However, I think it's noteworthy that NEW YORK POST critic Lou Lumenick's 4-star review of the film, posted outside the wall of the theater where I saw it, praises it in much the same terms Pierre uses to defend his show: as a daring attempt to break American taboos about race. Were it actually funny, it could have worked as a Brechtian satire - again, Lee makes sure even the dimmest spectator gets the point by having Pierre define satire several times - but its preachiness keeps laughter at bay. The late Marlon Riggs' 1989 documentary COLOR ADJUSTMENT raised these same questions with far more depth and insight, exploring how seemingly "positive images" can contribute to subtler forms of racism.
Apart from a 30-second TV clip of an anti-MANTAN protest led by Al Sharpton,
the Mau Maus are Lee's vision of activism, yet their facile Malcolm X-wannabe
sloganeering, malt liquor guzzling, penchant for violence and inability
to get through a sentence without saying "shit" or "y'know what I mean"
could have sprung from Joe Lieberman's nightmares. Lee's potshots at jiggy/gangsta rap are certainly warranted, and his casting of Mos Def and the Roots (who play the house band on MANTAN) indicates that he's aware more positive forms of hip-hop exist. Even so, his treatment of it plays into the hands of politicians and cultural watchdogs who ignorantly demonize the entire music and culture.
So much for ideology. It's time to move onto the aesthetic flaws of BAMBOOZLED. Lee (and most of his actors) treat the majority of his characters (Pierre, the Mau Maus, all white people at CNS) in incredibly broad strokes, while granting a handful (Sloan, the performers on MANTAN, Pierre's father) the courtesy of being treated like real people. Wayans' performance is gratingly one-note, which is probably its intended effect: his oddly mannered line readings and accent are markers of his strain at trying to get ahead in white, corporate America. The conflict between his over-the-top acting style and the more restrained, naturalistic performances of Smith, Clover and Davidson becomes jarring once the film eventually strives for emotional impact. This shift falls 100% flat, since the preceding satire is too unrelentingly heavyhanded not to set the tone for the entire film. I don't think Lee's decision to shoot on digital video is a major flaw, but the film does look ugly and amateurish. Given the impressive visuals of most of Lee's work, one would hope that he and cinematographer Ellen Kuras could use DV creatively, rather than as a poor, cheap substitute for celluloid. No such luck. However, considering the misogyny of many Lee films (especially HE GOT GAME), it's refreshing to see BAMBOOZLED use Sloan as its presiding conscience.
Pierre's critics constantly accuse him of presenting blacks as buffoons.
In BAMBOOZLED, Lee doesn't discriminate: almost everyone is a buffoon.
I question the effectiveness of fighting stereotypes with more stereotypes,
unless an artist can deploy them more subtly than Lee. Even so, I'm reluctant
to write it off completely: its unfiltered anger at American racism deserves
to be heard and rarely makes it to the multiplex. Although a bad
film, it's a worthwhile, if fatally flawed, provocation.