We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
So said Malcolm X, as quoted by Spike Lee in the production notes to "Bamboozled," his perplexing new film. To Malcolm, the bamboozlers were white people in general, but in Lee's films they're the television executives, black and white, who bamboozle themselves in the mindless quest for ratings. The film is a satirical attack on the way TV uses and misuses African-American images, but many viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused them himself.
That's the danger with satire: To ridicule something, you have to show it, and if what you're attacking is a potent enough image, the image retains its negative power no matter what you want to say about it. "Bamboozled" shows black actors in boldly exaggerated blackface for a cable production named "Mantan--The New Millennium Minstrel Show." Can we see beyond the blackface to its purpose? I had a struggle.
The movie stars Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard graduate who is a program executive at a cable TV network. He works under a boss who is, in his own eyes, admirably unprejudiced: Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) says Delacroix's black shows are "too white," and adds: "I have a black wife and two biracial kids. Brother man--I'm blacker than you." Well, Delacroix isn't very black; his accent makes him sound like Franklin Pangborn as a floorwalker. But he's black enough to resent how Dunwitty and the network treat him (when he's late to a meeting, his boss says he's "pulling a Rodman"). In front of his office, he often passes two homeless street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson). Fed up with the news that he's not black enough, Delacroix decides to star them in a blackface variety show set in a watermelon patch on an Alabama plantation.
The new show shocks and offends many viewers, but turns into an enormous hit, sending the plot into twists and terrorist turns that are beside the issue. The central questions any viewer of "Bamboozled" has to answer are: (1) How do I feel about the racist images I'm seeing, and (2) Is Spike Lee making his point? I think he makes his point intellectually; it's quite possible to see the film and understand his feelings. In conversation, Lee wonders why black-themed shows on TV are nearly always comedies; why are episodic dramas about blacks so rare? Are whites so threatened by blacks on TV that they'll only watch them being funny? An excellent question. And when Lee says the modern equivalent of a blackface minstrel show is the gangsta-rap music video, we see what he means: These videos are enormously popular with white kids, just as minstrel shows were beloved by white audiences, and for a similar reason: They package entertainment within demeaning and negative black images.