Malcolm X once said, “You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray, led amok. You’ve been bamboozled.”
Legendary auteur Spike Lee takes that and runs with it in his 2000 film “Bamboozled.”
“Bamboozled” stirred up a controversy for good reason, but is a must-see because it makes you think. Spike Lee has a knack for doing that.
“Bamboozled” is a satire that takes on the issue of race in the American media. The protagonist is almost an oxymoron, an African American television executive. According to Movieline.com, in 2000 around 75 percent of television writers were white. In a 1999 survey by the NAACP, it was found that ABC, for example, employed only nine black writers, five of whom were working on the same show. NAACP’s Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch president Billie Green once stated: “The lack of diversity in writers’ rooms throughout television is even more startling than the lack of diversity on the air.”
The “Bamboozled” writer is Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a smoothly-dressed yuppie who tries to give the people, or at least the network’s conception of the people, what they want. He tries too hard however, and falls harder.
Delacroix hasn’t had a show produced in his career. He’s about to lose his job if he doesn’t produce. To please his boss Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport), Delacroix delves back into the history of African-Americans on film and television and decides to revive one of the most popular, and offensive, forms of early American entertainment – Minstrelsy, black-faced dance and comedy shows. The show is called “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.” It features Mantan (Savion Glover), a homeless tap dancer, and his sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson).
“Mantan” becomes a huge hit. The press calls it “a hip, funny way of tackling old stereotypes.” Images of a mainstream audience in blackface and Sambo lips are shocking and disturbing. It makes you wonder how much control mass media entertainment has over the public mind and how far consumers will go before they question things.
Of course, a lot of people are plenty pissed off. Delacroix, while defending his hit and enjoying success, comes under attack. His biggest opponents are his faithful and beautiful assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who is falling for Mantan, and her radical hip-hop rapper brother Big Black Africa (Mos Def). Big Black Africa and his radical activist crew, the Mau Mau’s are hilarious and on point. Things begin to unwind for Delacroix and eventually he has to confront the racist demon he created.
“Bamboozled” has laughs, drama and plenty of thought-provoking social commentary. It was made partially as an homage to Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (Lee’s dedication is to Budd Schulberg, the legendary screenwriter who wrote that film) and Sidney Lumet’s “Network.” Bamboozled was shot all on digital video, which is at first annoying, but the eyes grow accustomed. Lee has the budget for regular film and it would have been nice to see that, but the future is digital and we might as well grow accustomed.
This is not an amazing film, or Lee’s best, but it is a must see. It demands that the viewer confront America’s racist past, stereotypes, and media culture, then look to the future.
The film will screen this Saturday at 7 p.m. in the West Hall housing building as part of the Black Heritage Month 2002 celebration (see story, this issue.) Call 503-725-4355 if you have questions.