Let's be honest: As much as people may complain about Spike Lee's public pontifications on race, or his controversial stances, or his being a rabble-rouser, that's the way we like him. What first comes to mind when you hear his name mentioned? Certainly not Girl 6 or The Original Kings of Comedy. No, Spike will be remembered, quite rightly, for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Disagree with his opinions if you want, but there's no denying that the problem of race is what fuels his most passionate work onscreen and what makes his best films so memorable (the underrated Get on the Bus is forgotten only because it came out too late -- the Million Man March had faded from mainstream consciousness in the year it took to film the thing).
That's why Bamboozled, shot on digital video because Lee was so impressed with the Dogme 95 film The Celebration, holds as much promise as it does: It's Spike getting back to what we think of as being Spike, in this case taking on racism in television. Damon Wayans (ironically, the real-life brother of Shawn and Marlon Wayans, eponymous stars of one of the most derided black sitcoms on the air) stars as Pierre Delacroix, an upscale TV writer who speaks in a bizarrely bombastic yet mannered "white" voice that sounds like Sammy Davis Jr. impersonating Dr. Evil (he greets colleagues with phrases like "You have a grrrrand day!"). Despite being the sort of person many blacks might call a sellout, he's been struggling for some time to get an intelligent show about black people on the air but is thwarted at every turn by his homeboy-wannabe white boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who throws around words and phrases like "dope," "booty," "peep dis" and, of course, the N-word, which he asserts his right to utter because he's married to a black woman ("I'm blacker than you, I'm keepin' it real, I'm 'bout it 'bout it," he tells Pierre). Dunwitty insists that Pierre's shows aren't realistic and keeps sending him back to the drawing board.
In a fit of desperation and indignation, Pierre comes back at his boss with a plan he's certain will get him fired and thus out of his contract: an old-time blackface minstrel show (this time with black people, rather than white, in even blacker makeup), with a lazy, shuffling, watermelon-eating tap dancer at its center. Recruiting two homeless entertainers and renaming them "Mantan" (Savion Glover) and "Sleep 'n' Eat" (Tommy Davidson), he pitches the idea to Dunwitty as a social satire. Naturally, not only does Dunwitty love the idea, so do the critics and the viewers. Soon, blackface becomes a national sensation.
So far, so good. It's not as much of a stretch as it might seem on the surface to imagine such a show being defended as satire (a Jewish publicist insists to Pierre that "the show can't be racist, because you're black"), even though what we see is so laden with profanity that it would never make it on the air. A side story dealing with Pierre's relationship with his father provides the movie some much-needed depth, although Pierre never does answer the question his father asks on behalf of everyone in the audience: "Nigga, where the fuck did you get that accent?" When Pierre mentions that he'd rather his father not use that word, Dad fires back: "I say "nigga' a hundred times a day. Keeps my teeth white." Director Lee seems equally determined to keep his teeth white, as it were, in this case, somewhat undermining his criticism of Samuel L. Jackson's use of the N-word so often in Tarantino films (he even continues to jab Tarantino by having Dunwitty cite the Q-man -- and put down Lee by name -- as justification for his own usage of the word).
Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, it gradually begins to lose focus. Pierre, who originally seemed to burn inside with anger at the subtle racism surrounding him, becomes a defender of it, trying to justify his show and keep his job even though he had intended to get himself fired. Mantan, who is depicted early on as an easy dupe who only cares about money, suddenly develops smarts and a conscience. But the biggest narrative misstep is the elevation of an ignorant rapper who calls himself Big Black Africa (Mos Def), and is initially a hilarious parody of clueless Afrocentrism, to the role of avenging angel. It's difficult to talk about the ending without giving too much away, but it does ultimately come across as an advocacy of violence. And it will be discussed on talk radio and TV magazine shows a great deal in the weeks to come, so see the film quickly if you want to be surprised. The tonal shift from comedy to tragedy is a tough one to pull off, and Lee doesn't manage it very well, although the minstrel shows themselves nicely straddle the line between funny and horrific. Making the shift particularly uneasy is a drastic change in behavior for Pierre's secretary (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Wayans' continual voice-over narration in his outlandish fake accent, which is impossible to take seriously; imagine watching Do the Right Thing as narrated by Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian character.
To guarantee that audiences won't leave the theater laughing, however, Lee closes the film with some extended montages of actual minstrel shows and a collection of antique tin toys depicting African-Americans as hideous cartoons. Some of this footage is so revelatory that you wish Lee had made a documentary instead. Perhaps, however, it ultimately contradicts his point (that racism is easily marketable in today's world) by showing that, despite our racial problems, we really have come a long way since the days when it was acceptable to market a spring-action toy of a mule kicking a black man in the head. It seems a little extreme for Lee to say, as he does in the press notes, that if you take away the blackface, the minstrel show he depicts is no different from many shows currently on the air (although the minstrels do act a lot like a certain computer-generated George Lucas creation).
There's no question that racism is still alive in America, and the lower-key jokes in Bamboozled take on the subject quite well, as in the scene where Dunwitty, wearing blackface, mentions that he had a hard time getting a cab ("Perhaps they thought you were Danny Glover," snorts Pierre), or when Pierre gets his all-white writing staff to get past their political correctness by tapping into their anger over the O.J. Simpson verdict. But the climax is so ham-handed that it almost negates the film's prior well-scored points.