Spike Lee's 'Bamboozled': Soul-Defying Success

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000

"It is a complex fate to be an American," Henry James observed, but that statement reached its widest circulation in an essay by James Baldwin. Which gets at the true point: how more complex still it is to be a black American.

Now here comes Spike Lee and, to jack up the degree of difficulty exponentially, he insists that we imagine how complex it is to be a black American of exquisite talent.

That phenomenon is exactly what Lee's new "Bamboozled" looks at, and what the movie lacks in clarity, it makes up for in honesty, toughness, relentlessness and passion.

This is not a sunshine movie for summer viewers. It is the reflection of a black American who has made it in the white world yet has found himself assailed by members of his own race as well as by many of other races, a man who is materially comfortable and presumably feels guilty as hell about that, who wants two things that happen to be mutually exclusive: to have a revolution and to keep his courtside seats at the Garden for Knicks games.

The movie chronicles the adventures in self-hatred of a self-invented man named Pierre Delacroix--Harvard graduate, genius, television writer-producer and self-proclaimed "Negro" who is played at a high pitch of willed theatricality by Damon Wayans. Pierre's affectations--the fake French name, the effeminate vocabulary of gesture, the accent that seems to come from another planet, the $4,000 suits--all bespeak the fact that his true personality is invisible. He is like Ralph Ellison's great hero, almost unseen behind the trappings that seem to define him. Is there a him there, or just a hollow space? This turns out to be the moral crux of the picture.

Dela, as he is called, toils bitterly for a second-rate network (think the WB) that seems to operate on the delusion that its crude shows are cutting-edge. Its executive vice president, Dunwitty, is one of those annoying whites who fancy that they "get" black people. "I'm blacker than you," he tells Dela, and feels free to use the n-word in Dela's presence; he thinks it makes him hip. (Michael Rapaport, with that grating adenoidal aggression in every sentence, that natural tendency to ooze vulgarity from every pore, is great in this role.)

Dunwitty puts Dela on the spot: come up with sensational programming. And so it is that Dela comes up with "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show." Dela's motives are murky: He tells himself that he means the show to be so offensive it will fail and he will be relieved of his contractual obligations and go forth to do "good" work. But there's a part of him that Wayans lets us see that secretly takes pleasure in the crudest, the oldest, the most evil of stereotypes. He wants to mash white America's face in the theory and practice, the higher eschatology, the gestalt, the Zeitgeist, the karma and essence of the "coon."

The show he conceives, then, features two gifted men--Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson--in blackface, doing the equivalent of Amos n' Andy routines, complete down to big-lipped, slow-talking, watermelon-slurping stupidity. They are given monikers that only a Klan Kleagle or a student of racism at its most virulent could think up: Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat. Dela is cynical enough to realize that, as a black man, he enjoys a provisional protection from accusations of racism, but in his heart he knows he's wrong.

Of course the show is a great success, a plot twist that seems inspired by Mel Brooks's "The Producers" and underscores again Mencken's great observation that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people. Dela is the man, he's the champ, he's got money, fame, the hatred of his people. His reward: isolation, the anger directed at him and the anger he feels which he unleashes through his work, the estrangement of a good woman (his assistant Sloan, played by Jada Pinkett), the violence of those who would kill him, the confusion of his performers, a whole vicious cycle of befuddlement and finally, bamboozlement.

The movie then follows ramifications. Pinkett's Sloan knows what Dela is doing is wrong; but she stands for moderation rather than rage. Her retaliation is sexual and emotional, taking the form of a relationship with Mantan. Her mad, stupid brother knows it's wrong and with his crew begins to calculate a cruder vengeance. Mantan knows it's wrong, but cannot pull himself from the fame, the attention, the power he has achieved. They bamboozle him. His partner Sleep 'N Eat knows it's wrong; he alone has the guts to get out. Dunwitty just knows the numbers are high; in other words, he knows nothing.

What is Lee saying? His message is not for the timid, and he knows that a certain portion of the audience will take the wrong pleasures from the minstrel show performances, which are both ugly and, in that guiltless freedom of the darkness, funny as hell. He also knows that he's got a fabulous movie showpiece in Glover, a performer who, when he dances, simply transcends context. This guy got moves. Those fast-tapping feet, those long legs, those graceful arms, the snap, the brio, the discipline that is freedom, the freedom that is discipline: They just take over when Glover kicks it, and the pleasure it offers has nothing to do with the ideas of the movie. It is just pure pleasure.

But Lee is saying to white people: You defined us as coons and we could succeed only by living up to that image. We had to become tap-dancing, song-singing, slow-talking tar babies, and then you laughed at us because we were what you said we were. That is why we hate you. (He hates white people: it would be inaccurate to say he doesn't.)

And he is saying to black people of less talent and more anger: They did this to us. This is what we had to do to survive. Now you hate us for it and call us sellouts. But let me tell you, brother, it hurts to be where I am, just as bad as it hurts to be where you are.

And he is saying to himself, or rather is admitting to himself, that for a black man who succeeds in America, the fate is always bamboozlement, not fulfillment. It's as if he is acknowledging that he long ago committed himself to success, convinced that the struggle was ennobling and that when he had achieved it, he would find all his problems solved. But he has achieved it and found his problems only amplified. Possibly he is the most bamboozled of them all.

Bamboozled (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for racial invective, profanity and violence.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company