similar to oliver stone, spike lee’s name always creates polarizing reactions. such reputations are usually unwarranted and when one actually sits down to watch their works, the reputations almost make the works seem quaint. yes, heavy handed messages beating you over the head is expected in their films, but i am appreciative of movies with strong convictions and personal beliefs every once in a while. we need people like them, since there are way more rob cohens, stephen sommerses and joe johnstons. i’ll take a flawed personal joint like bamboozled over a glossy flawless based-on-picture-books/children-nostalgia movie any day.
made at the turn of the millennium, bamboozled is spike lee’s version of network. some may argue that this line applies to most of lee’s movies, but “i’m mad as hell and i’m not gonna take it anymore” is uttered numerous times throughout the movie by various characters.
damon wayans plays pierre delacroix(though outside of work he’s called peerless or dela), a tv writer (though he seems more like a head writer, a producer or an executive, judging by his office, home, and clothes) who’s under pressure from his boss michael rapaport. much like mel brook’s producers, he pitches a show that’s so offensive and racist that he would get fired, instead of if he just quit and risk getting sued for violating his contract. this “new millenium minstrel show” stars two street performers outside his office building. the two black street performers will play characters named mantan and sleep ‘n eat, in blackfaces. the show will take place on a watermelon patch with a band named the alabama porch monkeys, played by the roots, who will go on to score night catches us and become jimmy fallon’s house band, without prison attires. of course, the show turns out to be a hit. in case you can’t tell, it is a dark(thematically, not racially) satire.
actually now that i think about it, i’m not entirely sure about that. i don’t think i laugh a lot during the movie. it’s more the variety of “oh haha” than “lol.” there is one part that i laugh. it helps if you heard of lee’s objection to tarantino’s use of the n word in jackie brown. unable to find a video clip, here’s what rapaport the white boss said during a meeting with wayans’ writer:
Don’t go getting offended by my use of the N-word. I have a black wife and two biracial kids so I feel I have a right. I don’t give a goddamn what that prick Spike Lee says. Tarantino was right. “Nigger” is just a word. If Old Dirty Bastard can use it, why can’t l?
at one point the rapaport character also said “i’m out like vanilla ice” when getting off the phone. which i thought was funny, especially if you remember rapaport’s rave of stanktonia in that outkast commercial/informercial and that he just made a documentary about a tribe called quest.
there are a lot of things i like in the movie. at the same time, it’s quite sad that the targets in the movie are still relevant. at the time the movie was made, the wb and upn were upstart networks with shows like homeboys in outer space and secret diary of desmond pfeiffer. i can see where lee is coming from. as in oliver stone movies, lee even manages to make a simple debate scene dramatic, this one between pierre delacroix’s assistant played by jada pinkett smith(who’s more natural here than in anything i’ve seen her in) and her rapper brother played by mos def(who’s better here than be kind rewind would led you to believe). his group(including the 1/16th black mc serch from 3rd bass) is working on an album they called the black album, three years before jay-z’s and nine years after metallica’s). there’s also comedian paul mooney as pierre delacroix’s father, playing a standup comedian. the underlying theme seems to be ideals vs blings.
can anyone watch the audition scene now and not think about the american idol pants on the ground audition, or chocolate rain, or the homeless guy with the golden voice? are we better off than we were ten years ago? after mos def’s group audition, lee climaxes the scene with pierre delacroix saying “i don’t want to have anything to do, with anything black, for at least a week.” without that line, it would have been a montage of black stereotypes.
there are also detailed scenes of how the black face is done technically, something i didn’t know and i hope no one i know did. i love the various audience reaction shots during the pilot. i also love the commercials for da bomb malt liquor and timmy hillnigger. as unbelievable as the new millennium minstrel show would become a hit on a network or cable, it seems realistic enough that audience of any age, gender, and race would co-op and show up to the taping in blackface. co-op is probably the wrong word. i guess it is a little like non-black hip hop fans calling each other the n word and fistbumping, you can’t really tell why it’s wrong and stupid but it just is.
it’s a thought provoking joint but not without flaws. first and foremost is damon wayans’ choice as an actor to speak and act in such a way that is always distracting. yes, satires are supposed to be outrageous. but characters in satires are almost always realistic, at least elements of real human beings. not here. wayans performance makes it seems like he’s doing a white guy character in a in living color sketch, which only reminds me of that eddie murphy sketch on snl as a white man (and what an interesting turn of event that murphy turning from a spike lee idea to a spike lee target, though unintentional). his accent is mentioned by his father asking where he got his ridiculous accent, but that’s neither here nor there. wayans and lee seem to have different ideas of what the movie is. or what kind of satire the movie is. and this is coming from someone who’s not too down on mo’ money and blankman, and even appreciate my wife and kids on ocassion.
lee also has to be faulted for some of the other issues in the film. there is simply no sympathetic characters in the movie. he’s shooting in all directions and making every character and event a target. the idealistic mos def rapper at first seems like a somewhat idealist who wants to be called big black africa even by his sister but then we see him in the studio drinking da bomb malt liquor. the pinkett character also seems that way at first but the third act totally derailed(or denied) that notion. lee also takes shots at cuba gooding jr and ving rhames’ award show appearances. maybe i’m naive but i thought those moments were sincere and real reactions. did lee seriously sense minstrel elements when “show me the money” was yelled or jack lemmon was mentioned? should cuba gooding not act excited and say lines from his award winning film? and is it that far-fetched that ving rhames admires jack lemmon as an actor.
but as with the most of the film, lee top this scene off with the punchline that matthew modine and matt dillon are the same person.
while taking shots at everything in the movie, there are quite a few awkward references. he mentioned, but doesn’t seem to take shots at in living color, which is what damon wayans and tommy davidson are most known for. there are no mentions of nutty professor, martin, big momma’s house and the likes. while the tv landscape is certainly worthy of being targets, what about that 90s cosby show or movies like soul food or the woods? there’s nothing wrong with poking fun at imperfection but certainly there’s something positive worth mentioning alongside the negatives. broadway tap dancer savion glover, mantan on the new millennium minstrel show, is named manray, is that really a much better character name than what the movie is supposedly making fun of? i am honestly clueless as to whether i should be ashamed at being amazed by his tap dancing. the movie also speaks condescendingly to the television medium and its viewers. the opening scene has damon wayans’ character defining the word satire in a voice over, and then directly into the camera.
bamboozled also totally ran off the rail in its third act. it turns melodramatic when it should have been clever and witty. the love triangle aspect doesn’t work and in fact, destroys pinkett’s character arc.
and much like stone, lee is not shy of editing in historical footages and montages. bill clinton and al sharpton also appear in archival footages. he even put in a clip from his own malcolm x when danzel washington was mentioned. he seems to use any excuse to insert footages of past “minstrel” scenes any chance he gets, at times illogical to the simplest narrative sense. maybe it’s because i watched classified x with melvin van peeples(and to a lesser extent, baadasssss cinema) prior to this in preparation for our black history month theme, but i could have done without 90% of those footages. at the same time, it’s somewhat humorous that wayans’ character has to watch these to research for his new minstrel shows. i could also have done without the double showings of certain shots.
one explanation may be that lee shot this dogme style(one that surprisingly budgeted at $10 million) , with multiple digital cameras. this technique actually fits the story. it allows him to have 15 different cameras rolling at the same time and choose which shot to use later. it may bother some people(funny that lars von trier’s digitally shot dancer in the dark came out at about the same time but gained more affection than bamboozled did). but i think it works to the films advantage. despite its flaws, bamboozled is an extremely admirable effort. i wouldn’t recommend it to people who’s never seen any of his movies, especially if the premise of black actors in blackface bothers you like it did ebert, who spent most of his review addressing that aspect and defining what is funny. just accept that it’s a 2+ hours of mostly successful and always powerful satire/drama with black actors in blackfaces.
it’s great that lee’s able to do this along with more mainstream movies like inside man, clockers and 25th hour. i would love to see him do one of these every 5 or 10 years. say, bamboozled: bamboozled in movieland(i can’t be the only one curious about lee’s take on the tyler perry phenomenon or precious), bamboozled on reality shows(cribs? flavor of love? murray?), bamboozled goes viral. it’s really too sad and depressing that lee would still have materials 11 years after bamboozled 1. what i took from it is that it’s not really about the evil white men or the evil boss or the evil corporations or any social rules or selling out your soul but more about his view on the system. somewhat intelligent and attentive tv views can tell you what’s wrong with that industry. it won’t provoke much discussion or make you learn much you didn’t know before. at the same time it’s not really preachy either. like all great movies, it distills down to we, as individuals, the decisions and what we think is right or wrong and where that line is drawn. lee, like most auteurs (stone, de palma, altman, or tsui hark), is way more interesting in low budget anything goes bold statement type films than bland big budget genre productions.
classified x: 3.5/4
baadasssss cinema: 3/4
classified x is currently available on netflix instant