This year, 2009, marks the 30th anniversary of 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks, the production company started by Spike Lee.  Periodically, reviews of some of Mr. Lee's films over the course of his ongoing 24-year feature film and documentary directing career will appear here at The Popcorn Reel.  Below is a review of "Bamboozled", which opened on October 6, 2000 and made just $2.1 million in the U.S. and Canada (it was in very limited release and for a brief time).


MOVIE REVIEW                                                                                                      

Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, looking at a racist caricature during Spike Lee's film "Bamboozled", which opened in select cities in the U.S. and Canada today.
(Photo: David Lee/New Line Cinema)

The Black Box: Tearing Open The Salty Wounds Of
Racist Imagery In American Television (And Film) Entertainment
By Omar P.L. Moore/   SHARE
Friday, October 6, 2000

Astounding in its ability to shock, disturb and make you think about racist imagery and stereotypes in American television and film, "Bamboozled", which opened in select cities across the U.S. and Canada today, is Spike Lee's most powerful and scorching film so far, in fact it's his best.  Inspired by the films "A Face In The Crowd" (1957) directed by Elia Kazan and "Network" (1976) directed by Sidney Lumet, "Bamboozled" is a bitterly abrasive in-your-face satire, sparing no prisoners, black or white, as it takes on the cottage industry of racist imagery of blacks in television, both historic and contemporary.

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a pretentious man who is the sole black writer in a white writing team at CNS (Continental Network System), a national broadcast television company based in New York City.  Pierre, whose birth name is Peerless Dothan, has had enough of not getting credit for great ideas and is fed up of being ignored and talked around.  Desperate to be fired in order to collect severance pay from his contract with CNS, he devises a show to combat the network's flagging ratings believing that his idea will be so offensive and ratings will plunge further.  Pierre's idea: put blackface make up and boot polish on black people on the television show and call it "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show".  Recruiting a homeless but talented duo in Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) to be the show's principal stars, Pierre is sure that outrage not popularity, will secure the show's demise. 

Of course the "Mantan" show is an overnight ratings sensation ala the "Springtime For Hitler" musical number in Mel Brooks' film "The Producers", and the train of racial insults, epithets and dehumanizing of blacks careens out of control, gaining popularity across America.  Michael Rapaport is terrific here as CNS senior vice president Thomas Dunwitty, who declares that he can use the "n"-word because he's blacker than Pierre is and has a black wife and two biracial kids.  He seems to know more about aspects of black popular culture than Pierre, who has a mild contempt for it or at least a complex over his own identity as a black man, displaying a haughtiness with the nasally-pitched voice that he uses, perhaps passing himself of as some kind of fancy bourgeois.  But whether Thomas's knowledge legitimizes his right to be racist or espouse racist language is quite another story.

Sloan Hopkins (an excellent Jada Pinkett-Smith in arguably her best role) tries to warn Pierre about what he is setting in motion.  The film's weak point is the awkward romances between Sloan and Pierre (largely implied) and Sloan and Manray (loosely defined), and both situations suddenly escalate in the third act, which attempts to hastily wrap things up.  Mr. Lee doesn't finish strong in some of his films but this one packs one hell of a punch to the gut.  Some characters' actions in the third act are dramatically at odds with what they did just three or four minutes prior, with the overall tone of the film in the final act plunging into melodrama in precipitous fashion.  Filmed mostly with hand-held high-definition cameras, "Bamboozled" has the feel of a television show, and it throws in additional characters such as the Mau Maus, a black liberation rap group who want a show of their own.  Mos Def plays the leader of the Mau Maus -- he's great here as Big Black Africa aka Julius, Sloan's older brother.

Mr. Lee's film features the legendary Stevie Wonder, who provides two songs for the film, and highly effective composing by Terence Blanchard, whose music score is both seductive and sorrowful, notably the latter, in one scene in which Sloan tells Pierre about why she has a collection of racially offensive and demeaning caricatured sculptures.  There are also some jaw-dropping funny skits and excellent tap dancing from Mr. Glover, who choreographed the dancing in the film.  And the cinematography of Ellen Kuras is impressive, capturing the depths of the tone, pain and mental anguish of the characters, all of whom are anything but innocent bystanders.

When a montage of unforgettable and repulsive images of blacks from American films and television eventually flash across the screen for about three minutes they are heartbreaking and alarming.  Some will be offended, others deeply saddened or angered.  Others still will be astonished to know that this long history of racist imagery in American television, including in Bugs Bunny cartoons and in many Hollywood films considered classics (right up into the 1950s and beyond), existed at all.  Blackface arguably persists today albeit in more subtle (or not so subtle forms).  Mr. Lee argues that today's gangster rap is part of the ongoing blackface minstrelsy, and might point to some of Tyler Perry's films as conduits of the same.  (Just 22 years ago in England, the BBC aired its final edition of "The Black And White Minstrel Show" on television.) 

There will be others, those who loved and laughed along with and at the hapless nitwits and racists in Mr. Brooks' film "Blazing Saddles" who will find themselves having very little to laugh at here, although Mr. Lee's film is very funny in the most uncomfortable places -- and there are many of those.  Even so, "Bamboozled" offers us a painful history lesson that is highly necessary viewing, even if it is far from pretty.

"Bamboozled" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong language and some violence.  The film's duration is two hours and 15 minutes.

Copyright Omar P.L. Moore.  2000.  All Rights Reserved.



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