"Bamboozled" is a defining film for Spike Lee. Not because it's necessarily his best work as a writer-director--though it is up there--but because it feels like his most characteristic, shedding a powerful light on the core drives of an always controversial career.
Savage, abrasive, audacious and confrontational, "Bamboozled" is the work of a master provocateur, someone who insists audiences think about issues of race and racism we'd rather not face, especially when we go to the movies. It's the angriest film an unfailingly angry filmmaker has yet made, skewering almost everyone in it, both black and white. Taking comfort in its own fury, it doesn't necessarily care if you agree with its points, just as long as you take the time to listen.
Like most polemical films, "Bamboozled" offers little in terms of drama and character; it's a satire that's abandoned everything in the service of its rage. Yet that single emotion brings so much passion with it that this has to be counted as Lee's most involving film in some time. The points it's trying to make couldn't be clearer, and the ways he's chosen to say them couldn't be more painful and discomforting.
"Bamboozled's" African American protagonist is Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a sophisticated Harvard-educated writer with a ridiculous, contrived accent. He works for the struggling Continental Network System and is so out of touch with black popular culture he can't identify the star athletes on his boss Dunwitty's (Michael Rapaport) office walls.
Dunwitty, by contrast, is a crude, posturing white guy, even more of a poseur than Delacroix, who worships hip-hop slang and feels free to use the N-word in casual conversation. "I don't," he says, "give a damn what Spike Lee says." He tells Delacroix he's blacker than he is and dares the writer to "dig deep into your pain" and create a show that will make headlines.
Helped by his loyal but conflicted assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) and with a homeless street performer named Manray (brilliant tapper Savion Glover) and his pal Womack (Tommy Davidson) in mind, Delacroix does just that. He changes Manray's name to Mantan (in tribute to 1940s black actor Mantan Moreland), Womack's to Sleep 'N Eat, and casts them as "ignorant, lazy and unlucky" characters in his "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show."
It's a program that glories in every hideous, stridently offensive racial stereotype imaginable, from rolling eyes and shuffling feet to the extensive use of burnt cork blackface and bright red lipstick to artificially accentuate grinning mouths.
Hard as it is to read about "The New Millennium Minstrel Show," it's even more upsetting, almost horrifying to experience, to see, for instance, the show's all-black house band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys dressed in convict stripes and balls and chains.
Lee doesn't care if you're offended; in fact, he seems to hope you will be. His thesis is that what's truly disturbing is what he sees as the reality behind those awful images, that from the 19th century to the 21st, American society has only wanted to see black people as buffoons. "It's always been our job to amuse white people," he told The Times' Patrick Goldstein. "You have to ask the question: 'Is the audience laughing with you or are they laughing at you?' "
"Bamboozled" is merciless toward white people for finding this kind of hurtful, demeaning behavior entertaining and toward blacks for being willing to provide it. He mocks almost anything that moves, from the stereotype of the "grateful Negro" to a rap singer (played by Mos Def) who changed his name from Julius to Big Black African and heads a self-proclaimed revolutionary rap crew called the Mau Maus, which spends most of its time getting high.
The only character in "Bamboozled" who escapes the film's scorched-earth policy is a gifted stand-up comic named Junebug (Paul Mooney), who had too much dignity and integrity to make it in Hollywood. Junebug mocks the current rage among white people like Dunwitty to act black, as does Chris Rock, heard in a clip from his HBO show saying that his white writing staff "wanted to really know the black experience, so I fired them."
One of Delacroix's rationalizations for putting a minstrel show on TV is to wake up America, to move the nation to change, to give the stereotypes visibility in order to destroy them. Naturally, it doesn't happen. "The New Millennium Minstrel Show" becomes a huge hit, a World Wrestling Federation-type success that creates all kinds of unforeseen agony for everyone.