What do you do if you are in a job you hate? A job where you are not getting the respect that you know you deserve? Would you find a way to get fired? Well, that is what the central character of today’s film thought that he would do. Unfortunately, it backfired on him and he ended up creating a cultural phenomenon that propelled him and all involved into the A List, then ended up destroying him and those closest to him.
Today’s film is another Spike Lee Joint – my favourite of his: Bamboozled.
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a TV producer who feels that his talents are going to waste creating shows that portray African Americans is a negative light, even though all he has done has to bend over backwards to The Man (even changing his name to Pierre, from the far less “white friendly” Peerless). So, after being pushed one two many times by a wigger boss who is a fan of that kind of stuff, Pierre decides to give his boss what the man wants – and sets out to design a show so ridiculously over the top with its negative stereotypes that it makes The Black and White Minstrel Show look like a Benetton catalogue (in fact, the show ends up being called The New Millennium Minstrel Show). However, not only does his boss LOVE the idea, but he even pitches in to make the show even more offensive, ending up by moving the location from The Projects to a “down home watermelon patch” and helping to make the two main characters the embodiment of every negative black stereotype that have ever been portrayed – hell, even the show’s house band is to be called The Alabama Porch Monkeys (although, in real life, they are the awesome The Roots).
After choosing to build the show around two homeless hustlers that he passes every morning on his way to work, Manray and Womack (soon to be rechristened ManTan (after Mantan Moreland) and Sleep’n’Eat – “two real coons”), as well as filling every other role with a bunch of actors just trying to get a break, the show is ready for its first taping. Before I move on, I just have to make mention of the casting scene, in which Pierre and his assistant, Sloane (Jada Pinkett-Smith) are subjected to all manner of act, ranging from a rapping pimps to didgeridoo players to interpretive dancers to Sloan’s brother Julius’ ultra-militant rap act, The Mau Maus; who, instead of getting a part, end up scaring the heck out of Pierre (“I don’t want to have anything to do with anything black for at least a week”).
Needless to say, the audience does not know what to make of the show, but they soon find themselves won over by the charm and talents of the stars (and, lets face it, remove the racist imagery and they show is pretty gosh darn entertaining) and Manray’s big opening speech, in which he decries the “niggers” who do nothing but willingly portray themselves in a negative light (a scene that mirrors the “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” scene from Network). And pretty soon the show becomes an unwitting phenomenon the likes of which none of them could have forseen. And, even in the face of the ire the show’s existence raises in some quarters, the success gets bigger and bigger, with each of the four main characters becoming affected by it in different ways. Pierre starts off embracing the success, basically living the gimmick he helped put back on screens (“I would give the public what that want – I would become The Grateful Negro”). Manray basically lets the success go to his head, starting up a relationship with Sloane and all but alienating everyone around him, eventually leading to an event towards the end of the film. The most heartbreaking change, though is seen with Womack (a way better than he has any right to be Tommy Davidson) who goes from excited, to accepting, to self loathing, to hating the entire process, to just trying to get back to what he and Manray had before the entire process. Hell, even Manray himself shares a part of this, and can be seen in the few “blackface applying” scenes, where you can see the change on both men’s face,
The end of the film finds all the characters changed, and not for the better, by the whole experience. I can’t talk too much about what happens without spoiling everything, so I won’t. But what I can talk about are some of the real life attitudes that this film generated. I can see how images used in this film, even within the context of being a satire, could be definitely seen as being racist (particularly the final few minutes, which show a “highlight reel” of negative African American stereotypes as portrayed in the media). However, what Spike Lee has set out to do with this film was make a satire of both the negative images AND the overly politically correct way in which history gets whitewashed (pun intended). Hell, one of the first things Pierre does is to explain just what satire does, which lets the viewer know exactly what they are in for. And, hell, in addition to a satire on race image, I found it to be a pretty big satire of media itself. As I have mentioned elsewhere, it seems these days that the art of subtle satire is a dying art – with a lot of people unwilling to take things as more than just what they perceive, or even outright looking for things to get offended by. And that just makes me sad, as, instead of looking into something and talking about it, people just get angry and point the finger at things that are trying to highlight just why they are getting angry in the first place.
There is a lot to like about this film, though – it contains lots of entertaining moments, lots of shout outs to history (both to highlight the actual entertainment as well as raise debate points) and some really likeable performances – none the least, I feel, is Savion Glover, who plays Manray. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the film was designed as a showcase for his hoofing talents. I’ve been a fan of the man and his skills for a number of years (he used to be featured on Sesame Street when I would watch it with my little sister) and I’ve long since felt that the man should be more popular than he is. But it wasn’t until Bamboozled that I felt he had found a place that could act as a “wide net” showcase for his talents – not that he really needed it, mind, as he has long been a fixture in various Broadway shows. Not only do we get to see him dancing up a storm at multiple points throughout the film, but we also get to see he and Davidson performing some of the more infamous minstrelling routines – and hell, those things are actually pretty damn entertaining, regardless of the colour of the performer.
In addition to Glover, Davidson and the aforemention Roots, we also get a great performance from The Mau Maus (Spike Lee basically made a rap supergroup to play them – anchored by Mos Def, they also feature MC Serch, Canibus, Charli Baltimore, mUms and a couple others), some fine standup comedy from Paul Mooney (who plays Junebug, Pierre’s father) and some pretty darn good dancing from the best student’s Glover had taught at the time of filming. In fact, the whole film plays somewhat like a variety show of sorts, which makes for a good viewing experience – to me at least.