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'Bamboozled': Bewildering

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000


    'Bamboozled' A TV minstrel show becomes a big hit in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled." (David Lee/New Line)
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.

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.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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