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Blu-ray Review: Spike Lee’s Bamboozled on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s new transfer brings out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

4.5
Chuck Bowen

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Bamboozled

In Bamboozled, Spike Lee pushes racist images from the past into the forefront of our consciousness, rendering them inescapable, undeniable. The 2000 film is littered with Mammy dolls, lawn jockeys, coin banks, and other toys and figurines that feature grotesque caricatures of African-Americans. At the center of the film’s narrative are reconfigured tropes of minstrel shows, in which black performers act in blackface, dancing and joking in sketches that often liken African-Americans to animals and buffoons.

Throughout the film, Lee connects minstrelsy to stereotypes of modern pop culture, especially the gangland clichés that are peddled by white-owned corporations to consumers of all kinds, offering an illusion of danger, pivotally divorced of the actual violence of systemic racism. As such, these modes of entertainment sell a laundered form of subjugation back to us, and numb us to the atrocity of America’s original sin while allowing the power structure to continue to profit from it. In a time in which we choose our own news, in which portions of our country are trying to rewrite the past, the fury of Bamboozled is timelier and more poignant than ever.

If Bamboozled were only a lecture on racial images, it would be valuable but perhaps too comfortably processed as a history lesson. What gives the film its charge is that Lee is too much of an artist to merely demonize minstrel culture and its progeny. He sees the art in it—the soulfulness and timing of the performers. Lee uses minstrel shows to grapple with an ongoing irony of pop culture at large, as it is imprisoning, reducing people to often racist, ageist, and sexist consumerist quadrants, and freeing in terms of how it stimulates our hopes and imaginations. The fictional variety show in the film, Mantan: The New Millennial Minstrel Show, is indefensibly, disgustingly racist, though it features superb comic timing and dancing, and is filmed in a lustrous color scheme that stands in stark contrast from the hand-held, often bleached-out Dogme 95-esque aesthetic of other scenes.

Conceived by TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as a protest against the clueless racism of his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), who feels he’s an honorary brother for marrying a black woman and following sports, Mantan is set on a watermelon patch and features a “couple of real coons.” In the show, which borrows bits from African-American entertainers like Bert Williams and Mantan Moreland, among others, Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep’n Eat (Tommy Davidson) get into a variety of adventures, stealing chickens and eluding white overseers, and their routines are accompanied by a band outfitted in prison clothes, the Alabama Porch Monkeys (played by the Roots).

Much room is made for the extraordinary verbal and physical precision of Manray and Womack, the characters playing Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, which is tragic in this context, as their talent is placed in a framework of marginalization—a tragedy that Lee clearly sees as ongoing, rippling through the decades in various permutations. Upping the symbolic ante, Manray and Womack are homeless when Pierre discovers them, dancing for nickels. They are modern slaves who choose to sell their souls—a decision that’s underscored by their despairing application of the blackface, fashioned by burned cork and fire-engine lipstick that renders them otherworldly instruments of bitterness and ridicule.

Bamboozled often feels as if it’s on the verge of exploding; it’s a head-spinning work, and Lee’s use of objects and tropes as pieces of self-indicting social infrastructure is reminiscent of the fusion of pulp and essayistic montage that drove Godard’s 1960s-era films. The modern minstrel-show conceit is socially and thematically loaded enough, but Lee adds another narrative hook—in the key of A Face in the Crowd or Network—following a monstrous creation that outgrows its maker’s intentions. Rather than serving as a screw-you to Dunwitty, Mantan becomes a sensation, unearthing the racist roots of more insidious programming. Black viewers seem to enjoy the confirmation of their worst fears, while whites savor the ability to laugh at such caricatures out in the open. Even critics like the show, calling it a brilliant satire.

Bamboozled has a wrenching, meta-textual intensity. Is Lee critiquing the images that make up the film’s Mantan sequences, enjoying them for their lurid disreputability, or both? Lee is a political filmmaker with a penchant for genre-movie sensationalism—a conflict that has always imbued his productions with a daring that’s often lacking in self-consciously nourishing “issues” films. He’s socially engaged, but there’s also a hedonist in him who cherishes style as well as the cathartic energy of sexy, violent set pieces and loose, profane comedy. There’s a strong impression here that Lee, on a certain level, enjoys Mantan, and audiences who’re honest with themselves may have similar reactions. With typical Lee bombast, Bamboozled literally opens with the definition of satire, as Pierre talks to us while dressing for work. In this touch is a terror, on Lee’s part, that this film will be misunderstood.

Even outside of the Mantan scenes, Bamboozled largely suggests a modern minstrel show or sketch comedy. The film is a collision of various tones, with plenty of free-associational curlicues; it’s a parody of stereotypes that revels in all sorts of stereotypes itself. As played by Wayans, Pierre is a peculiar parody of the black man who longs to be white. Wayans speaks in a purposefully fake French accent that’s so broad that we’re reminded of his characters from In Living Color, which is mentioned here in dialogue, while adopting a rigid physicality. Meanwhile, Rapaport commits to the cliché of the rich, educated white dude who speaks in “street” slang that’s informed by pop culture, dropping the n-word liberally. Watching these actors project reductions of the other’s race and to one another is to feel as if you’ve entered a twilight zone of cultural scrambling. The characters are so conditioned by society to play caricatures that they suggest no one; their specificity is lost, and they seek to spread this virus of anonymity with Mantan. On the other hand, perhaps they truly feel at home when assuming accoutrements that are widely associated with another’s race, opening an existential debate as to where culture’s influence ends and the “real us,” whatever that is, begins.

Dunwitty is a one-joke character, but Wayans brings a startling pathos to Pierre. That French accent often seems on the verge of cracking, and Pierre’s intoxication with parroting racist words back to Dunwitty suggests a need to cathartically confront the absolute worst of white people’s assumptions about African-Americans—a need that’s extended via Mantan itself. In this and other ways, Bamboozled rhymes with Lee’s recent BlackKklansman, which featured a Jewish police office impersonating a Klansman and confronting, with this performance, the ugliness of discrimination—an act that isn’t without a certain strange rapture.

Lee shares in this rapture, as Bamboozled is a kinetic, weirdly exhilarating howl of rage that grows more varied and risky as it proceeds, featuring absurd, sexualized, profoundly realistic fake advertisements within the context of Mantan, as a well as interludes with a militant musical act, the Maus Maus, that suggests a blend of the Black Panthers and Public Enemy. Everyone here, even those who share Lee’s own convictions, is understood to be for sale and vulnerable to branding. (You may wonder if Lee, a wealthy African-American artist with a shrewd sense of promotion and style, who’s directed advertisements for Nike and other companies, is wrestling with his own branding complicity, though this possibility isn’t explicitly broached in Bamboozled, and it’s the film’s one failure of nerve.)

Bamboozled ultimately feels less like a satire than an act of conjuring, channeling pop culture’s manipulations into an unforgettable 136-minute torrent of hyper-kinetics. A sadness of the film, retrospectively, is that it’s dated. In our present-day era, with cellphones, the Cloud, and streaming sites, with the government giving more money and leeway to corporations every year, with news that’s designed to provoke and divide, with a president who actively encourages, and profits from, racism, craven branding culture has only grown more powerful, and notions of self only more fragmented.

Image/Sound

This new digital master, created in 2K resolution and approved by writer-director Spike Lee, boasts a wider spectrum of color than prior editions. The minstrel sequences, shot in 16mm, boast especially explosive colors, notably the reds, greens, and blacks that evoke, and parody, a diseased idealization of a slave plantation. The scenes outside of the minstrel show are grittier, with shriller lighting that’s very well rendered here, with newfound subtleties evident in Lee’s prismatic imagery, especially in reflections and frames within frames. Another ingenious, disturbing visual effect is also more pronounced than ever before: As Pierre begins to suffer from hallucinations, imagining his racist toys coming to life, the cinematography grows richer and more vibrantly dark, echoing the aesthetic of his minstrel show. Facial and clothing details are also astonishingly clear, which is of paramount importance to a film concerned with various distortions of human bodies. Meanwhile, the 5.1 surround soundtrack is a show-pony triumph, a fluid and cacophonous blend of various sources of music and a dense assemblage of diegetic effects, from the click-clack of tap dancing to the shockingly loud percussion of gunfire—sounds that even blend together in the film’s violent climax.

Extras

A 2001 audio commentary by Lee has been ported over from a prior DVD edition, and it remains a frank and informative discussion of an incisive film. The 55-minute “The Making of Bamboozled,” also from 2001, has been recycled here, though one wishes it favored on-the-set footage more than talking-heads puffery. A new conversation between Lee and critic Ashley Clark covers the film’s controversy, and Lee still seems nearly giddy with the outrage it provoked. Complementing this discussion is a terrific interview with film and media scholar Racquel Gates, who offers a primer on the history of minstrel shows, particularly the many performers who are referenced directly in Bamboozled. There are also poignant new conversations with actors Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who collectively describe Lee’s adventurousness and openness to contribution and collaboration. The best new extra, though, is Clark’s essay, which discusses Bamboozled’s wide spectrum of influences, ably contextualizing its resonance. Rounding out the package are music videos for the fictional band the Mau Maus’s “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love,” as well as deleted scenes, a poster gallery, and the trailer.

Overall

Criterion has brought out the unruly beauty of Spike Lee’s lurid, violent, daring political satire.

Cast: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Sarah Jones, Gillian Iliana Waters, Susan Batson, Christopher Wynkoop, Jani Blom, Dina Pearlman, Danny Hoch, Mos Def, MC Serch, Gano Grills, Canibus, DJ scratch, Charli Baltimore, Mums, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Tyheesha Collins, Cartier Williams, Jason Bernard, Baakari Wilder, Sekou Torbet, The Roots Director: Spike Lee Screenwriter: Spike Lee Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 136 min Rating: R Year: 2000 Release Date: March 17, 2020 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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