I don’t want to speak for Spike Lee, Lee speaks enough for himself, but what I find admirable about his public persona is that he willingly sacrifices a certain likability, and likely closes financial avenues, to discuss something he wants talk about. Take his public scuffle with Clint Eastwood over Eastwood’s World War II films, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers (2006 both). Lee criticized Eastwood for not featuring any black soldiers in his films. Eastwood, fairly reasonably, defrayed the criticism, positing that his movie was solely about the iconic raising of the Iwo Jima flag and that there were no black soldiers involved in that particular event. I haven’t a clue whether Lee believes or not that Eastwood deviously omitted black faces from his films, but I do know that Eastwood’s movies grossed six times more than Lee’s own World War II film, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), and that Eastwood’s movie had a significantly more visible publicity campaign, and Lee’s remarks about Eastwood’s movies earned the discussion of black representation in war films more ink and air time than it would have had he said nothing.
Similarly, when Lee was directing Malcolm X (1992), he publicly asserted that “no white director could do a good job” with Malcolm’s story. Again, I won’t presume that Lee didn’t literally mean what he said, but there’s no denying that because of the incendiary nature of his words, the subject of the dearth of black directors in Hollywood became nearly as big of a media story as the production itself.
I thought a lot about that while watching Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which was promoted as a satiric comedy in the vein of The Producers (1968) then was roundly criticized for not being funny.
A quick look around its Rotten Tomatoes profile reveals a pattern of criticism of its sense of humor. “This is basically sloppy, all-over-the-map filmmaking with few hints of self-criticism and few genuine laughs,” says Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader. “Great set-up. Lousy follow-through,” writes Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When Mel Brooks satirizes Nazis in the famous “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers,” writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, “he makes Hitler look like a ridiculous buffoon. But what if the musical number had centered on Jews being marched into gas chambers? Not funny.” “Instead of a pointed and revealing satire borrowing a ‘Springtime for Negroes’ plot device from The Producers …,” writes Mark Bourne of DVDJournal.com, “…Bamboozled spins downward until it confuses melodrama for potency… .” Bamboozled is too complicated, its targets too legion, for me to claim I know exactly what Lee was after, but I know that these readings, that Bamboozled is a comedy, that it should make you laugh and that it has anything to do with The Producers, restricts its powerful impact.
The movie tells the story of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a television writer at a big studio who is under pressure from his boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) to produce something edgy. His suggestions of shows about the black middle class are roundly rejected. The network needs something controversial. Dunwitty is a loathsome creature. He steeps his office in African art and images of black athletes and feels his black wife gives him the right to liberally use the N-word. “Brother man, I’m blacker than you,” he tells Delacroix and believes it because he defines blackness as the ability to identify Willie Mays by his jersey number. Delacroix’s idea is to be fired (he no longer wants to be part of the industry) and to achieve that he dreams up “Mantan – The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” in which the talented street performers he walks by every day, Manray and Womack, will be made up in blackface and sing, tap dance and perform degrading skits. The network loves it. They think it’s a brilliant satire. Studio audiences sit stoneface until a few of its members crack up and then they get into the act, even donning blackface at tapings as the show grows in popularity. The show is a hit, but it draws severe criticism from segments of the audience, eats at the soul of its creator and star, and Delacroix loses the respect of his parents and his partner Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Eventually, the show is hijacked by a militant rap group who holds a public execution of Manray and his “Mantan” character and the violence escalates.
Here’s the difference between “Mantan” and “Springtime for Hitler.” The latter is a brilliant satire. It ridicules its target until it renders it completely toothless. It’s also unbelievably funny. There’s nothing funny about blackface and there’s nothing funny about “Mantan.” What Lee does best is force you to come to grips with highly uncomfortable realities. Whereas The Producers lets you off easy by making you laugh, Bamboozled shoves your face directly in what is still shamefully unresolved: black representation in the media. Bamboozled doesn’t want to ridicule, it wants to remind. “New millennium, huh?” Womack snorts, at the end of his rope. “It’s the same bullshit. Just done over.” The blackface in Bamboozled is not meant to render blackface toothless, it’s meant to show that too many people still wear it today. It’s arguing that the 21st-century racism doesn’t look like the Klan, strange Southern fruit or minstrel shows, but the idea behind them is still all too prevalent. Yes, Dunwitty appears to praise black culture but he believes blackness is something that can be quantified and learned. It’s doubtful that a show like “Mantan” would truly become a sensation (the movie devilishly shows President Clinton watching and enjoying the show, a reference perhaps to President Wilson’s 1915 approval of The Birth of a Nation), but Bamboozled warns that the underhanded degradation that informed a real minstrel show bubbles under current media representation. Worse, while the obvious signifiers of racism like blackface have gone away, its dehumanizing purpose exists in a form that can be not only palatable but marketable.
Therefore, Bamboozled is not a comedy and to expect such is to be seriously disappointed. It has funny moments. I’m partial to a pow-wow among the militant rap group that throws out any number of ideas of militancy for militancy’s sake culminating with the resolution that they will henceforth spell the word “black” as “blak” (“I don’t even know why they put a ‘c’ there in the first place”). Humor also pervades Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), yet it would never be described as a comedy. Every joke in Bamboozled comes with a caustic undertone; the second you start laughing it reminds you that the pain and suffering behind the one-liner is real and ongoing. There’s a scene in which Pierre addresses his white writing staff that can often be very funny (Lee’s script nails Iowans and their insistent need to remind everyone that they are Iowan), but it soon gives way to poignancy. Listen to the way the word “they” is bandied about during this scene. Pierre visits his father (Paul Mooney), who is a comedian, and he chastises him for his repeated use of the N-word. “I say nigger 100 times every morning,” his father tells him. “It keeps my teeth white.” Its funniest line is actually a heartbreaking reminder of the greatest privilege of not being a minority. “I don’t want anything to do with anything black for at least a week,” groans Pierre after an audition session, which draws a laugh but also a sigh at the stark indication that Pierre, who is forever a political entity whether he wants to be or not, will never be able to receive his wish. This idea is rendered more poignant as Manray and Womack, who just want the opportunity to display their talents on TV, become the object of criticism as everything they do represents their whole race.
Bamboozled is criticized for being unfocused in its targets, but it’s clear that its mark is the media (Network  is an obvious and acknowledged influence both in tone and plot); it’s just that the movie comments on every angle of the representation argument. Here we have parodies of commercial products promoted to blacks (Pierre’s network is sponsored by Timmi Hilnigger clothing) and Lee has a lot to say about the media’s definition of blackness. People talk about a “community” and an “urban market” as if blackness were a monolithic and universal concept, and Lee includes secondary and tertiary characters to demonstrate the diversity within the “community.” Pierre and Sloan represent a progressive middle class, but Pierre has parents from another, more bitter age, and Sloan’s brother Julius (Mos Def), the leader of the rap group who demands he be called Big Blak Afrika, comes from another sort completely. Pierre, who was born Peerless Dothan, is actively turning away from his parents’ world, yet all of them are living “the black experience,” another catch-all media phrase. Bamboozled‘s critics further this conundrum. Bourne begins his review on DVDJournal.com with “Despite Lee’s early promise as an African American filmmaker, with interesting ways of saying interesting things, lately his films’ examples of grating excesses outnumber his moments of cocksure brilliance.” I don’t understand that phrase, “Despite Lee’s early promise as an African American filmmaker.” Was Lee on his way to becoming an African American filmmaker and never made it? The black experience, despite what you see on TV, has no definition.
Like Lee’s public persona, Bamboozled appears to be one thing while operating as something deeper. No, it’s not a comedy, but it’s truthful and wants to shake you out of complacency to question what you’re watching and pay attention.