Bamboozled, the latest cri de coeur from Spike Lee, is about a frustrated black television writer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who ends up creating a new program for his network – a variety-act minstrel show set on a plantation and featuring black performers in blackface. Despite protests, the show – featuring Manray (Savion Glover), a formerly homeless tap dancer who is dubbed Mantan after the pop-eyed black comic Mantan Moreland, and titled Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show – is a winner. Blackface, worn by all races, becomes the new national rage. Delacroix’s boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a vice-president of the lagging Continental Network System, is ecstatic. Even President Clinton is shown watching the show and chortling.
Lee loads up his movie with so many hot buttons that the film resembles a compendium of all his previous provocations. It’s the Compleat Spike Lee. If dunning and baiting and chastising and lecturing were all it took to create a powerful experience in the movies, then Bamboozled would be a masterpiece. It’s far from that, although clearly the intention here was to be more than a movie anyway. Lee wants Bamboozled to be a call to action: Stop the minstrelsy in our popular culture.
The new minstrelsy, as alluded to in the film, shows up most readily on television, which is where Delacroix, the sole black writer on his network’s staff, has been toiling without success. Delacroix believes the black middle class has not been given a chance to sample anything more than race-demeaning monkeyshines. His own shot-down ideas, which include a show about a black headmaster in an eastern boarding school, don’t sound so great, either, which may or may not be intentional. The implication here is that Delacroix, Harvard-educated and with a phony, pseudo-cultured accent, is a man out of touch with his blackness. And yet in the beginning, he remains angry enough to stick it to his white bosses. His pitch for the televised minstrel show describes it as satire; he talks about digging deep into his own pain, but what he really aims to prove is that the networks don’t want to see blacks on TV unless they are buffoons.
This motive is blended in with another: Delacroix believes that by viewing something so offensive and racist, the country will wake up and move on to a better place. Of course, things don’t work out that way, and he becomes an official advocate of the show’s success and a self-hating sellout. His assistant, Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), goes along for the ride for a while but is aghast at what her boss has wrought; her brother Big Black Africa (Mos Def), who heads the rap group Mau Maus, is outraged enough to take up arms. (The group’s final ambush by the police is meant to conjure the most notorious NYPD shootings of African-Americans.)
Lee shot Bamboozled in digital video using multiple cameras, and it has the hepped-up quality of an exposé. Some of its tactics are lifted directly from Network, which also slammed viewers with self-righteousness and berated us for the soullessness of our appetites. Lee is a great hater. His distaste for Delacroix is so pronounced that the man never comes across as a tragic figure or much of anything else except a puppet. Even his education is held against him. (Maybe while he was at Harvard he should have taken a class with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has written admiringly of Lee’s movies.)
The real hero of the film is Delacroix’s father, June-bug (Paul Mooney), a racy comic reduced to playing ghetto dives because, as he explains it, he had too much integrity to allow himself to be neutered by Hollywood. No sellout he. Lee sees this neutering specifically in racial terms, but of course television is an equal-opportunity ball-buster. It is also, on occasion, a place for great comics, including black comics, to shine. Lee isn’t terribly specific about what current shows, or movie stars, he believes are causing all the problems. He exhibits a more generalized anger, and in a climate where black movie stars and comics, despite ongoing injustices, have never been more popular with a wider range of audiences, that anger has its hollow side. The excitement and the craziness in pop culture right now have a lot to do with the ways in which racial categories in entertainment, which used to be pretty clear-cut, are now so jumbled. The racial divide is no longer Grand Canyonesque, but Lee wants us to know it’s all a sham. At times, it appears that what’s really riling him is not that black culture has, in his view, been minstrelized for public consumption but that so many whites are mixing it up with that culture.
A less punitive filmmaker might see something liberating or flattering or even comic in this state of affairs: Movies and TV and hip-hop have turned a vast swatch of white kids into a nation of White Negroes. Lee shows us white people in Bamboozled, most pointedly Dunwitty, who think they’re real soul brothers or sisters, and we’re supposed to regard most of them with utter scorn. And Lee makes it easy for us to do so, since more often than not their hypocrisies are right on the surface. The Amos ‘n’ Andy-loving Dunwitty, whose office is plastered with photos of black sports greats and who has a black wife, tells Delacroix, “I’m more of a nigger than you are.” His media consultant, a Yale Ph.D. in African-American studies whose parents marched with Dr. King in Selma, proffers slick advice about how to buy the NAACP’s complaisance regarding the minstrel show. The consultant’s name is Myrna Goldfarb, and Dunwitty, who says mazel tov and jokes about the size of his nose, is clearly also meant to be a member of the tribe. What is this scapegoating doing in a movie that claims to promote healing?
The film never makes it believable to us that blackface could become a national craze, or that critics would champion the minstrel show as groundbreaking. Does the show’s runaway success mean that it’s being interpreted by audiences and commentators as subversive satire designed to wake America up? Or does it mean, as Delacroix’s disapproving mother laments to her prodigal son, that “a coon is a coon”? The latter, I think. The pickets against the show are led by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran, and they are not deluded men. The notion of a craze for blackface serves the film’s hysteria about populism run amok in the liberal atmosphere of the new millennium. The film’s model is not only Network but A Face in the Crowd (1957), in which a guitar-picking corn-pone con man, Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes, becomes a television celebrity and bamboozles the nation with his homespun charm. (Lee’s movie is dedicated to Budd Schulberg, that film’s screenwriter.) Savion Glover’s Mantan is like a more innocent version of Lonesome – innocent, that is, until Sloan and his minstrel partner, Womack (Tommy Davidson), wise him up about how demeaning his success is. Sloan offers up little mini-tutorials in the history of minstrelsy; she confronts Delacroix with a videotape compilation of atrocious racial stereotypes from the history of film and television and shouts, “Look at what you contributed to!”
As awful as many of these images are, there is another side to this tragedy that Bamboozled is unconcerned with: the ways in which black entertainers, even in the most cruelly stereotypical of roles, often managed to steal the show anyway with their wiles and timing and spirit and beauty. Who could not have eyes for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, even if he was hoofing with Shirley Temple? Poor Mantan Moreland and Hattie McDaniel and all the rest are made to take the rap in this movie for contributing to a legacy of racist degradation. One would think, given what they were up against, that a bit more sympathy might be shown to these people. But sympathy doesn’t have much truck in Bamboozled, where rancor takes the place of argument and outrage is palmed off as art.