By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000
In "Bamboozled," a satire about the endemic racism that governs mass media, Spike Lee makes his points with an elephant gun. Just about everybody gets shot in this relentless, indiscriminate attack.
A TV minstrel show becomes a big hit in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled."
(David Lee/New Line)
The story centers on Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an African
American television writer who's under pressure to create a black-interest show to
restore his network's plummeting ratings.
Delacroix's boss, a demented executive named Dunwitty (Michael
Rapaport), is desperate for a TV show that's provocative and fearless.
So Delacroix comes up with a minstrel show with an ironic twist. The
"Negro" performers as Delacroix labels them will be played by black
performers in blackface. They will perform onstage in front of a live
audience, rolling out all the bulgy-eyed, watermelon-loving Stepin
Fetchit cliches and encouraging the audience to get past their white liberal
discomfort and enjoy the experience.
Delacroix hires a street-performing tap dancer named Manray (Savion
Glover) and his partner, Womack (Tommy Davidson), to play the parts.
He renames the tap dancer "Mantan," in tribute to actor Mantan Moreland (the bug-eyed chauffeur in the Charlie Chan movies). And Womack becomes Sleep 'N Eat.
Dunwitty, a white man who prides himself on his hip-hop awareness,
loves the concept. So does white America, which ascribes a sort of Seinfeld hipness to this old-fashioned, racially repugnant song-and-dance variety show. Suddenly, "Mantan: The New Mil
lennium Minstrel Show" is all the rage.
But in Lee's vision, everyone's enjoying themselves just a little too much. White people, especially liberals, are obviously just racists in disguise, desperate for an opportunity like this to laugh at black stereotypes. As soon as audiences realize it's okay in a postmodern sense to laugh at this show, they just roar in the aisles.
"I want you to tap into your white angst," says Delacroix, encouraging his squad of white writers to come up with some great racist zingers for the show. "I want
you to go back to the OJ trial."
There doesn't seem to be much in the way of salient argument here,
just a sort of semi-coherent indictment of everyone. Just about
everyone seems to be some sort of schmuck or racist or fool. The
Harvard-educated Delacroix, for instance, is clearly meant to be
culturally questionable, someone who has made himself act and sound white in order to get
ahead. But Wayans's pretentious accent is so pronounced, it's
pantomimic and unfunny. The effect is distracting, jarring and annoying. If Wayans is having fun with this thing, it's not apparent.
Delacroix's politically sensitive, African American assistant Sloan
(Jada Pinkett-Smith) doesn't like this minstrel show at all, and certainly doesn't know what to make of its success. But she goes along with the program anyway. She's certainly not part of the solution.
The movie, shot in digital video, becomes increasingly preachy, as
Womack/Sleep 'N Eat starts to develop a conscience about what he's
doing, and a group of rappers presumably, the relative voices of reason decide to exact street revenge on the perpetrators of Delacroix's show. What's the message
here? If it's that the old minstrel stereotype is still with us on
some subtle level, the movie fails to demonstrate how. Clearly, blacks
and whites are contributing to the regeneration of racist stereo
types in the media, but what's Lee's point beyond this facile observation? And what does it do for the movie to show montages of Bugs Bunny, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in blackface? Sure, these are signs of racist images a long time ago. But Lee seems to imply that
there has been no improvement in the nation's racial consciousness since an absurd assertion.
Whatever the point of these historical low moments, they don't
seem connected to the movie's less-than-cogent agenda. In the end, "Bamboozled," is a collection of endless variations on a tired, hackneyed theme. And with conceptual misfires like this, Lee's best work ("She's Gotta Have It," "Do the Right Thing" and "Crooklyn," in my opinion) recedes even more swiftly into the past.
"Bamboozled" (R, 135 minutes) Contains racist comments and
stereotypes, obscenity and violence, and sexual situations.