That Spike Lee remains one of the true provocative soothsayers of cinema should come as no surprise, yet it’s an epiphany for those reconsidering the prescience of his undervalued masterpiece from the turn of the century, Bamboozled, which turns twenty years old as the world plunges into discord. That the film is dedicated to scribe Budd Schulberg, who penned the 1957 Elia Kazan classic A Face in the Crowd (also a recent Criterion addition), one of the film’s several timely inspirations, feeds similarly into the savage subconscious of America’s significant socio-political race and class divides (others influences being the dietetically mimicked Network as well as the Mel Brooks satire The Producers).
Opening with the definition of satire from the exaggeratedly white-washed protagonist Pierre Delacroix, played by an aggravating yet appropriately contentious Damon Wayans, Lee’s time-capsule, as raggedly cynical as the timeless themes of his previous 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing (read review) evoke hopefulness through revolution, this is Lee at his most prophetic—still years ahead of the cultural conversations and contemplation we’ve yet to confront effectively. As Nicolas Roeg wrote in his 2013 memoir The World is Ever Changing, “You should make films for the future – if you do that, the audience will catch up with you, eventually.” Lee made a film which touches on the past, present and future.
The ratings at CNS reveal a troubling trend for executive Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), and so he taps his most talented writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) to conjure a new, cutting edge idea of urban exploitation. Irritated by his boss, Delacroix stumbles upon the idea of creating The New Millennium Minstrel Show, hiring two street performers (Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover) he regularly observes outside his office building. In Delacroix’s mind, re-introducing blackface to America would be the in-your-face example destined to backfire on the loathsome Dunwitty. While his assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is averse to the idea, the show becomes an immediate hit, beloved by audiences and critics. But Delacroix is unprepared for the simultaneous jeopardy his brain-child causes, for when one dances with the devil, the devil changes you.
Considering Bamboozled debuted right after one of his most divisive statements, the sensational Summer of Sam (1999), and its troubling topics, it’s not difficult to see why it was so easy for the film to be dismissed. A box office flop (although the title did compete at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2001), Lee’s bluntness was always an easy rationale for writing him off, especially in a period before the internet had really changed our cultural fabric, before social media defined our dissemination of information and when film criticism was still by and large controlled by a select handful of heterosexual white men whose distaste for self-reflection had yet to be questioned.
The reception of Bamboozled feeds into these meta-textual themes, allowing for a self-reflexivity even Lee couldn’t have predicted. Black representation, cultural exploitation and appropriation provide the crux of this dark satire—Lee regular Thomas Jefferson Byrd as emcee Honeycutt fires off in his audition for this new-aged minstrel travesty, “To be or not be, that’s the muthafuckin’ question,” reframing one of Shakespeare’s most hallowed catchphrases for the dawn of digital, because the next question courts the formation of agency—who’s allowed to be or not to be?
Lee reunited with DP Ellen Kuras for a subversive juxtaposition of palettes. Filmed in digital, and using a variety of handheld cameras to capture a jittery array of perspectives for the ‘reality’ of Delacroix and his muddled landscape, the minstrel show is filmed in Super 16mm stock, a more ‘comforting’, familiar visual aesthetic yet filled with a landmine of unforgettably hideous imagery (it is perhaps one of the most troubling assembly of historical racist caricatures, something only equaled by racially inclined genre or parody, such as the first segment of 2018’s Tales from the Hood 2, executive-produced by Lee, showcasing golliwogs in the Museum of Negrosity).
It is also, by far, the most blatant depiction of how white Americans enthusiastically appropriate even the most troubling of racist representation, especially when allowed a platform by black ‘allies,’ something recently portrayed effectively in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) and between resolutions made by Oprah Winfrey and Dave Chappelle, both who abandoned trajectories (or in the case of the latter, his whole empire) to abort platforms which were misconstrued by problematic audiences unable to differentiate between text and subtext, satire and seriousness. And Bamboozled’s more obvious simulations of police brutality when it comes to apprehending white vs. black suspects is as cunning as the denouement of the Martin Sheen/Tony Musante vagabonds at the finale of Larry Peerce’s equally prophetic The Incident (1967).
As usual, Lee commands an impressive cast in Bamboozled, and if Wayans’ performance poses problems in his caricature, Jada Pinkett-Smith delivers one of the finest performances of her career, as does Tommy Davidson. Michael Rapaport is well utilized as Wayans’ obnoxious neo-racist boss, and appearances from Paul Mooney (whose comedic themes are sewed up quiet neatly in Bamboozled, particularly in two awards acceptance speeches parodying infamous moments from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ving Rhames), Mos Def, and Susan Batson (a noted acting coach) are all relevant mentions. But its perhaps the montage of Hollywood black face spectacles, set to a mournful, musing score by Tommy Blanchard which might be one of Lee’s most potent visual epilogues.
Film Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆