When Boots Riley’s critique of BlacKKKlansman first came out, my immediate reaction was, how far out there do you have to be when Spike Lee’s not radical enough for you? But after seeing the straightforward hero-cop story of BlacKKKlansman, I realized that “radical” was the last word I’d use to describe it, politically or formally. (And yes, I recognize that this is a movie that explicitly compares our sitting President to the Klan, but even that’s become a mainstream view when he invites it so thoroughly. These are strange times.) There’s a few striking formal touches: the as-always expert color photography, the juxtaposition of movie posters with discussions of their plots, the patented Spike Lee People Mover Shot, that ending — but for a Spike Lee film, it was shockingly unshocking. What happened to the director who had just turned in the gonzo surrealist hip-hopera of Chi-Raq? Who had Edward Norton berate a multisource montage of New York City and be berated by his own reflection in The 25th Hour? Who invented a whole new cinematic language and got out thirty years ahead of the Black Lives Matter Movement with Do the Right Thing? Most of all, what happened to the director of Bamboozled?
This isn’t just a movie that pulls no punches. This is a bare-knuckle one-punch K.O. of a movie. Lee’s decision to not only center an entire film on the taboo imagery of the blackface minstrel show, and not only that, to suggest it still pervaded the modern entertainment industry right down to the roots was so shocking that his strongest defenders didn’t know what to make of it. Even Roger Ebert, who would give Lee’s legendary bomb She Hate Me three stars four years later, in a review where he’s practically forcing himself to like it, trashed it. “I think his fundamental miscalculation was to use blackface itself. He overshoots the mark. Blackface is so blatant, so wounding, so highly charged, that it obscures any point being made by the person wearing it. The makeup is the message.” But to my view, that provocation is essential to Bamboozled’s power. It makes us look at the image of the blackface minstrel, to see the essential horror of it and the way it haunts America to this day. Lee’s relentless focus on these distorted faces pushes them into the Uncanny Valley, most notably with the protagonist’s Happy N***** Bank, whose eyes roll back demoniacally in its head, and, in one terrifying scene, literally comes to life in computer-animated form. These horror elements aren’t just cheap chills: the blackface characters’ monstrousness reflects on the dehumanized image of blackness they teach their white audience. Or as one of the characters puts it, “I love these old black collectibles…To me, it shows part of our history in this country, a time when we were considered inferior, sub-human.”
Bamboozled frames these images in the story of Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, a TV executive in a position of precarious power. He’s on the outs with his superior, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). He’s missed a meeting (Rapaport blames it on C.P.T., Wayans on never actually being told there was a meeting), but more importantly, his pitches for stereotype-busting interracial dramas aren’t selling because they’re “too clean, too antiseptic” or as Delacroix finishes his sentence, “too white?” So, Delacroix decides to pull a Producers plot. He’s going to shove Dunwitty’s face in his racist expectations in the most literal way, a New Millennium Minstrel Show, over the objections of Jada Pinkett Smith as his secretary, Sloane, the one voice of reason in the movie’s entire universe (give or take a cameo by Al Sharpton as himself). They hire some dancers off the street to star as Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat. The problem with a Producers plot, of course, is that it can go horribly right. And it does – with the New Millennium Minstrel Show, Delacroix created a monster, and it’s a monster hit. And with the rise to the top, especially on the backs of self-degradation, comes a long and painful fall.
But I can only speak for myself, and my first viewing of Bamboozled blew me away. If the old cliché is “I laughed, I cried,” Bamboozled did that and more — I laughed, I cried, I got good and mad, and I got the crap scared out of me. And even if I’ve cooled on it after a second viewing, that’s still an accomplishment. Few filmmakers even try for to encompass that range of emotions, and fewer still succeed. The audacity of Lee’s content should be obvious, but his stylistic choices are no less daring, and not all of them paid off in the eyes of most viewers. He frequently intercuts his original footage with archival material going back to the dawn of film: even the title comes from a clip of his own Malcolm X. And there’s another striking, shocking choice in the violent finale where Lee desaturates everything onscreen except his actors and the memorabilia of exploitation Wayans keeps scattered around his office. Other choices were more controversial: for instance, Damon Wayans’ hyperstylized line delivery. To many viewers, it’s distractingly cartoonish, but Lee’s never been known for subtlety (and we’ll have more to say about that later). To me, though, Wayans’ performance underlines the film’s themes: here’s the flipside of the central metaphor of blackface, a black man who, in order to succeed in a white-dominated industry, makes himself up with a caricature of white diction. More importantly, Wayans is still able to give his character cartoonlike exaggeration without reducing him to cartoonlike simplicity. His relationship to the Wayans comedy dynasty accidentally makes the movie even more poignant in ways that wouldn’t have been apparent at the time. Is there any better proof of Bamboozled’s thesis than Damon’s brother Marlon, who would go from a harrowing performance in Requiem for a Dream the same year to clowning for the man in lowest-common-denominator comedies like White Chicks and Dance Flick?
Lee was also an early adopter of digital video, and Bamboozled’s ugly, grainy look was another aspect that came under fire. In some ways, it’s fitting for a movie about television to resemble its subject matter, and it can do an effective job messing with the audience’s sense of reality. On the one hand, since the Minstrel broadcasts are filmed in Lee’s trademark Glorious Technicolor style, there’s a sense that, to paraphrase U2 “fact is fiction and TV reality.” On the other hand, this is the same technology used for “reality” TV and news, so no matter how outlandish things get, there’s still an it-can-happen-here immediacy to it. If there is a major flaw in Bamboozled, it’s that Lee’s conception of The New Millennium Minstrel Show goes pretty light on the “New Millennium” part. The movie presents us with a stagebound production that shows minstrelsy almost unchanged from its nineteenth-century form. It’s a little hard to swallow the show’s runaway success when, for instance, the studio audience inexplicably keeps watching as the show stops dead for an extended tap number. While you could argue this shows how little has really changed, it doesn’t just mess with the suspension of disbelief, it deadens the critique of modern media when we see so few reflections of it and so many to a form more comfortably in the past.
That’s about as comfortable as Bamboozled ever gets, though. Film criticism normally treats “subtlety” as an absolute good, and while I haven’t read a lot of contemporary reviews, it’s easy to imagine they stated its unsubtlety and left it at that. But Lee understands that subtlety generally has more to do with flattering an audience’s intelligence than respecting it. Lee gives no opportunity for viewers to congratulate themselves for recognizing his witty social commentary. He rubs your face right in it. If Lee were any other director, it might have satisfied his pettiness to have Rapaport play his clueless whiteboy producer with some of the mannerisms of his rival Quentin Tarantino. But Lee doesn’t care if you want to figure it out for yourself – he’ll have Rapaport come right out and say “I don’t give a damn what Spike says, Tarantino is right. N****** is just a word. If Dirty Ole Bastard can use it every other word so can I.” Is it subtle? No. Is it tactful? No way. Is it even a good artistic choice? I can’t say, but I have to admire the balls.
If Bamboozled’s politics are in your face, that might lead you to assume it’s also a one-sided or simplistic of heroes and villains. But Lee has always been living proof of the difference between being opinionated and dogmatic. There’s no hope of a simple solution here. A revolutionary rap group called the Mau Maus appears as a kind of opposition party to The New Millennium Minstrel Show, but like Buggin’ Out in Do the Right Thing, they can be just as ridiculous as the racists they’re fighting against. As their leader, Mos Def is introduced demanding that Sloane call him “Big Blak Afrika” because he thinks the name his mother gave him is a “slave name.” While the Mau Maus talk a lot about revolution, we mostly see them doing what the New Prophets would call “party and bullshit.” And we see a commercial for the malt liquor they’re drinking endorsed by New Millennium’s breakout star Honeycutt, suggesting they’ve been just as bamboozled as everyone else. When they finally take violent action, they scapegoat Mantan, who’s just as much a victim of the entertainment machine as anyone else. They try to kill with one bullet an issue a monster that’s spread its tentacles all the way to the heart of the entertainment industry, and America itself. Twenty years later, Bamboozled forces us to remember it’s still in there.