Perhaps every review of a Spike Lee film should consist of only three words: “provocative but unfocused”. From School Daze through Do the Right Thing up to 2000’s Bamboozled, that phrase rings true. Although it seems to be almost impossible for Lee to create a movie that fails to produce controversy, Bamboozled stands out even among the rest.
Many of Lee’s flicks deal with racial issues, but Bamboozled ups the ante a bit. It abandons the realism of Do the Right Thing and goes for a satirical look at its subject. In Bamboozled, Lee looks at how little distance he thinks society has come since the days when minstrel shows were all the rage. At the start of the film, TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) has grown frustrated with his job because he can’t get any apparently-progressive shows off the ground. In an attempt to get himself fired - he loses his severance package if he quits - Delacroix creates a show so offensive that he knows it’ll never be aired: The Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show.
This program will feature the talents of a pair of street performers with whom Delacroix has become mildly acquainted. Manray (Savion Glover) tap-dances, while Womack (Tommy Davidson) is more of a comedic entertainer. For the show, these African-Americans have to don blackface and enact some insanely stereotypical skits that all seem to have been written around 1900; for example, the refer to themselves as “two real coons” and when Mantan - a renamed Manray - passes out, his buddy Sleep and Eat (Davidson) rouses him with the scent of a watermelon, here called a “nigger apple”.
Much to Delacroix’s surprise, his black-wannabe boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) eats up the concept and the network endorses it as well. Not only does Mantan hit the air, but it quickly becomes a national craze, as audiences of all races embrace blackface and the show’s return to a “gentler time”.
Of course, not everyone’s happy with Mantan. For one, Delacroix’s assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) can’t believe all this is happening, and she tries to arrest the show’s progress, albeit in a rather passive way. With the brief appearance of Johnnie Cochrane and Reverend Al Sharpton as themselves, we see hints of an organized protest, but the main disgruntled faction comes from the Mau Maus, an unsuccessful rap group led by Sloan’s brother, played by rapper Mos Def. He renounces his given name of “Julius” and insists on being called “Big Black Africa”; all of the Mau Maus adopt titles that incorporate the word “black” and their big song is called “Blak Iz Blak”. What happened to the “c”? The aspiring revolutionaries denounce all things white, and since none of them have any connection with Noah Webster, they reject his spelling of the word. (As one character notes, he never pronounced the “c” anyway.)
Though they remain largely in the background as Mantan grows in popularity, the Mau Maus eventually decide that they need to take a stand. As such, they choose to perform a terrorist act against the show. I’ll leave the rest unsaid, but Bamboozled showed the influence of Network at that time.
Actually, shades of Network popped up fairly frequently throughout Bamboozled, as do hints of other films like A Face In the Crowd. Lee openly acknowledges these predecessors, as he should, especially because Bamboozled never feels like a rip-off of them. It’s not like Lee stole their ideas and repackaged them as his own. While the film occasionally directly quotes the older movies, it never plagiarizes them.
Bamboozled is a difficult flick to fully decipher. On one hand, its statement is very obvious. Some of its targets are very easy ones, and on the surface, it seems to do little more than tell us that stereotypes and racism are bad.
However, Bamboozled has more depth to it than that, though the layers aren’t terribly well constructed. As with School Daze, Lee doesn’t simply look at the race issue as a black and white one. Indeed, Bamboozled echoes SD in that it really doesn’t have a lot of scenes in which white opinions of blacks are explored. Do the Right Thing was the bigger avenue for that issue, while SD focused almost exclusively on the ways blacks interact and view each other.
Bamboozled also gets into that issue in a number of ways. For one, there’s the “keeping it real” topic. Delacroix changed his name long ago; he used to be known as Peerless but preferred to go with a whiter appellation. He also affects a stereotypically nasal and uptight demeanor that seems to accompany the way that many blacks view whites.
To a certain degree, Delacroix remains little more than a stereotype himself. Wayans plays him with such butt-clenched fervor that there’s not much room for nuance to escape. However, we do occasionally see a deeper side of Pierre, and we can tell that some conflict resides within him. He seems to feel little regret about the homier side of life he left behind - he’s largely estranged from his family, mainly represented through his father Junebug (Paul Mooney) - but he struggles with the pressures put on him to straddle the white and black worlds at the same time.
That’s one issue that really could have used more exploration. Some of its symbolism is obvious; Delacroix fails to thrive as a TV writer until he produces the most base, racially offensive show he can imagine. However, we don’t get too much idea of how he got to this position; he’s come far enough that he must have done something successful to make it there. The film hints that he sold his soul during the transition from Peerless to Pierre, but it doesn’t provide much depth about the journey. Instead, we see more indications of how quickly he sells out once he’s on top; any misgivings he had about Mantan largely evaporate as the world embraces his show.
Bamboozled glances on the issue of culture vs. stereotypes, but it also doesn’t go into much depth. Frankly, I find it somewhat mystifying to detect the difference between acceptable comedy and offensive pigeonholing. While Mantan is so insanely over the top that it leaves no doubt, there are other examples in the film that seem less clear. As lampooned during the movie, Lee clearly dislikes a lot of rap; in fact, on his audio commentary, he refers to many rap artists as the minstrel performers of today.
With the manner in which some acts glorify negative parts of the culture and play up to the same stereotypical notions of what’s important - champagne, scantily-clad babes and fancy cars appear in a frighteningly high number of rap videos - I have to agree with Lee. However, I really don’t understand how this kind of simple classification of the African-American dream radically differs from the kind of humor Mooney offers as Junebug. We see parts of his stand-up act, and it all revolves around race.
Am I the only one who thinks there’s some sort of odd double standard at work here? Why is one form of self-stereotyping terrible while the other is hilarious? In other scenes, we watch the warm-up act for Mantan - performed by Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) - happily embrace the concept that “niggers is a beautiful thing”. Both Honeycutt and Junebug provide material that revolves around stereotypical notions of blacks, and I really find it hard to tell why Lee seems to think that one’s okay and the other isn’t.
Granted, it’s not Lee’s job to provide all of the answers, and Bamboozled definitely provides more questions than solutions. That shouldn’t be regarded as a bad thing, for while it can be rather muddled and unfocussed at times, Bamboozled offers one of the more thought-provoking pieces I’ve seen. Lee probably will never make a seamless film, and frankly, that’s okay with me.
Yes, some of his missteps can be glaring. Bamboozled can go from hilariously insightful moments to moronically obvious ones in rapid succession. For example, some of the Mau Mau scenes are terrific in the way they lampoon parts of the culture; I loved the bit in which they decide to omit the “c” from “black”. However, another segment in which their lazy speaking style is mocked goes on too long; we hear an apparently incessant stream of “y’knowwhatImean?”/”y’knowwhatI’msayin’?” before this lame gag concludes.
Still, Bamboozled provides some solid laughs and it moves well between comedy and drama. At times, I thought Terence Blanchard’s score was too dominant. Especially early in the movie, the music seemed to be omnipresent, and I thought this presence was counterproductive; I noticed the score much more than I should have, and it took me out of the scenes. However, as the film progressed, I thought the music blended more smoothly with the action, and Blanchard’s work could offer excellent accompaniment at times. The track had a gently mournful quality that made it perfect to go along with some of the movie’s elements such as the images of racist products.
If there’s one thing I like about Spike Lee, it’s his willingness to go after all sides of a problem. Many have berated Lee for his apparent racism in the way he’s treated non-black ethnic groups; Mo’ Better Blues caused him trouble with Jewish folks, and among others, Summer of Sam brought on some consternation from Italians. However, I really think that Lee’s an equal opportunity filmmaker, which is why blacks often get the brunt of his attacks. Lee doesn’t solve the world’s problems with Bamboozled, but the film certainly will provoke debate. In addition, it’s often an interesting, entertaining satire. Yes, the movie’s too long and rambling - kind of like my review - but it does more right than it does wrong. It’s not Spike Lee’s best film, but it’s definitely the most interesting work he’s produced in quite some time.
Bamboozled appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of the movie was shot on digital video cameras (DV). Some reports state that the entire film was recorded that way, but these indications are incorrect; all of the “Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show” excerpts were filmed with 16mm equipment. Nonetheless, DV dominated the flick, a fact that led to some picture concerns.
However, I should note up front that Bamboozled provided the best-looking DV-shot DVD I’ve seen. As with other flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Chuck and Buck, the original video footage was transferred to 35mm film for theatrical screenings. All three of these DVDs took their pictures from the 35mm versions even though a direct video-to-video transfer would definitely have provided a clearer image. My reactions to the other two films varied. In the case of Blair Witch, I agreed with Artisan’s decision. That movie mixed Hi8 video and 16mm shots, and had the former been rendered with the ultimate clarity, they would have stood out starkly against the more ragged 16mm footage. The decision to use the 35mm prints meant a greater level of consistency for Blair Witch, and I think it was the right choice.
However, I felt differently about C&B. That film offered a very dank and ugly image that featured no reason to come from the 35mm print other than the fact that the 1.77:1 cropping meant that the DVD could be anamorphically enhanced. Otherwise, the image looked terrible; a video-to-video transfer would have been much more satisfying.
Bamboozled took the same path as did C&B, but it experienced more positive results. Although Spike Lee used consumer-grade cameras for the film, they clearly provided stronger quality images than did the equipment utilized for the other movies, as Bamboozled seemed surprisingly clear and crisp most of the time.
The DV scenes looked reasonably accurate throughout the film. At times I thought some wider shots came across as mildly soft and fuzzy, but those instances were infrequent. The majority of the movie appeared sharp and distinct. Due to the lower resolution featured by video, some examples of moiré effects and jagged edges occasionally cropped up, but these also were not terribly intrusive. Occasional grain appeared during the movie, but otherwise I found the print to appear devoid of any significant flaws.
Video doesn’t do colors as well as film, so it came as no surprise that the hues of Bamboozled sometimes appeared a bit drab or flat. However, during most of the movie the tones were adequately vivid and bright, and they lacked any signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels also seemed somewhat murky and muddy, and shadow detail was a little thick at times. All of these concerns came from the flick’s DV roots, and though they created some issues, I still thought the image was rather good for one that came from such a source.
Nonetheless, my rating of Bamboozled’s picture probably would have dropped into “C” territory without the high quality of the 16mm footage. The “Minstrel Show” scenes looked simply terrific, as they displayed none of the flaws witnessed during the DV shots. Sharpness appeared immaculate, while colors were tremendously vivid and expressive. Blacks seemed deep and rich, and the entire enterprise took on new life on these occasions. Because the 16mm parts represented a small part of the whole, they couldn’t strongly compensate for the weaker DV scenes, but I still felt that Bamboozled generally looked quite good.
Although the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also betrayed some of the movie’s low-budget roots, I thought it worked well for the material. The soundfield seemed largely focused upon the center channel. The other speakers provided decent general ambience throughout the movie, and they came to life nicely on a few occasions. For example, crowd sounds during the “Minstrel Show” tapings added breadth to the experience, and music consistently provided solid stereo imaging. Otherwise, however, this was a minimal mix that concentrated most of its elements in the middle.
Audio quality appeared very positive. Speech seemed consistently warm and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were similarly accurate and lively, and they more than adequately conveyed the necessary information. Music boasted the strongest fidelity of the lot. Terence Blanchard’s score appeared clean and smooth, while the various rap tunes blasted tight and loud low-end; the bass really thumped at times, and the dynamic range of the entire track seemed strong. Ultimately, I only gave the soundtrack of Bamboozled a “B” because of its limited soundfield, but the audio itself worked well for the material.
As part of New Line’s consistently excellent “Platinum Collection”, Bamboozled includes a wide variety of extras. First up is a running, screen-specific audio commentary from director Spike Lee. Last heard on School Daze, Lee can be a dull participant in these proceedings, and I started this track with a little trepidation. While the commentary definitely was spotty and inconsistent, Lee actually managed to provide enough information to make it generally interesting.
I witnessed some of the boring tendencies heard during Daze. Bamboozled featured more than a few gaps between Lee’s remarks, and he also often did little more than state the names of actors or their characters. However, Lee clearly seemed livelier during this piece, as he offered some good interpretation of the film and also went into details that related to the production. Not one to shy away from detractors, Lee addressed some of his critics, and he provided an interesting discussion of the movie’s controversies. He even added a funny impression of Tommy Hilfiger that related the events of the latter’s reaction to the film’s “Timmi Hilnigger” character. Ultimately, I didn’t think this was a great commentary, but it was well worth a listen.
Next up is a fairly solid documentary called “The Making of Bamboozled. This piece runs for 53 minutes and 10 seconds and it combines the usual mix of film clips, cast and crew interviews, and shots from the set. However, the program is a little different from most in that the latter category really dominates the proceedings. The interviews are pretty good, especially since we also hear from folks not formally associated with the film such as columnist Jack Neufield, writer Budd Schulberg, critic Stanley Crouch and historian Clyde Taylor. These participants add a level of subtext to the piece that otherwise might not have been apparent.
Nonetheless, the footage from the set offered the best parts. We get to see lots of good material that shows different aspects of the production. I love this kind of stuff, and I really enjoyed what I found during this program. Overall, “The Making of Bamboozled” wasn’t a great documentary, but it was consistently interesting and entertaining.
The DVD includes a whopping 19 Deleted Scenes as well. However, that number’s a little misleading, as some of them are extended versions of existing sequences, and some offer variations on the same theme; for example, we find four cuts of the “Timmi Hilnigger” ad, and three edits of the commercial for “The Bomb”. Each of the clips runs between 20 seconds and five minutes, 15 seconds for a total of 26 minutes and 36 seconds worth of footage.
For the most part, these were interesting to see. I didn’t think any of the pieces were terribly fascinating or valuable, and some became a bit redundant at times. The differences between the various Hilnigger and Bomb ads were pretty small, and I can’t imagine I’d ever be interested in watching them again. Still, I always support more rather than less, so I won’t complain. As a whole, it was good to see some unused material, and some of the parts were fairly compelling.
In the Animated Art Gallery, we find a variety of poster concepts for the film. These are filmed and presented as one running two minute and 35 second piece; Blanchard’s score played in the background as the program progressed. In addition, we discover the movie’s theatrical trailer plus two music videos. One of these if for Gerald Levert’s “Dream With No Love”, and it’s a pretty bland piece. Levert wanders around and lip-synchs while we occasionally see a snippet of the film. The other clip is for the Mau Maus’ “Blak Iz Blak”, and it’s a pretty standard piece as well. However, it’s always fun to see more of the Maus, so I won’t complain.
Finally, we get some DVD-ROM materials. “Script to Screen” lets you read the original script while you watch the movie; the video runs in a small screen on the left as the text displays on the right half of the screen. The “Original Website” includes some of the material found at that location on the DVD itself. This includes information about the film itself, details about minstrel shows, and a forum to discuss the flick and hear from the filmmakers. A lot of the extras require an Internet connection, but parts of the site are available straight from the DVD.
While not Spike Lee’s best film, Bamboozled may well be his most thought-provoking. This satirical offering takes a vicious look at racism in entertainment and other areas, and though it suffers from inconsistency, it’s still a compelling program. The DVD provides fairly solid picture and sound plus a nice complement of supplements. Love him or hate him, Spike Lee remains one of our most interesting filmmakers, and Bamboozled is well worth a look.