Photo: New Line Cinema
There is a great list on Letterboxd, created by Sean Fennessy of The Ringer entitled, “Filmmakers Saying ‘Fuck it, I Hate Everyone’”, which is made up of satires and scathing critiques of a specific field or ecosystem of people. The films on this list are undeniable and are some of my all-time favorites, including The King of Comedy, Network, Ace in the Hole, The Heartbreak Kid, The Player, and Dr. Strangelove. These are the kind of films I think about, adore, and even rewatch the most. Maybe this is an indictment of me, but I like my movies cynical, skeptical of the universe, and just mean as hell. One of the last films listed there chronologically, which is a telling sign that the films we get nowadays need a sharper edge, is the 2000 Spike Lee joint, Bamboozled. If this isn’t the meanest picture on this list, then it’s at least the most unhinged.
There was once a time, specifically in the middle of October 2000, where I could enter the Showcase Cinema in Woburn, MA and see this film on a big screen, presumably with other patrons? We always say “this would be a TV show today” about an unprofitable film of the past, but Bamboozled of 2022 feels destined to be a 30 second TikTok that strikes up a cancel culture debate. When I watch my copy of its restoration from the Criterion Collection, it feels like I shouldn’t be watching this.
Bamboozled centers around racism and black identity through the sphere of television programming at the dawn of the new millennium. A frustrated writer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans, yes that’s right, with a broad French accent), develops a show serving as a modern day minstrel show. Expecting the show’s pilot to get him fired, Delacroix is forced to reckon with the show becoming a big success. The cast of characters, including Manray (Savion Glover), Womack (Tommy Davidson), and Sloan (Jada Pinkett Smith), realize that America is still stuck in the past and the minstrel show lives on in our current media landscape.
The majority of Bamboozled was shot on Mini DV digital video cameras, the kind back in 2000 anyone could buy at a Best Buy or Circuit City. This gives the movie, to put it delicately, a crummy look. The $10 million budget is a factor, but the artistic value of shooting a whole feature film like a home movie adds to the “atmosphere” of a story actively capturing the dynamic moment of the new century. Between the writers room led by the wannabe black, N-word saying, TV executive, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) and the live audience covered in blackface for the taping of “The New Millennium Minstrel Show”, there’s a lot of trashy people in this story, so the trashy look makes the shoe fit.
However, whenever we watch the taping of an episode of the minstrel show, the image jumps off the screen, because these sequences are shot on pristine, high quality film. Now here is where the rubber meets the road over the debate of whether you think this film is a biting satire or continuation of the problem. In essence, between the stand-out quality of the visual appearance and excellent showmanship of Glover and Davidson, the minstrel show is well made and… entertaining. This is quite problematic if you are Spike Lee and care deeply about protecting the integrity of black performers and artists. Yet, in my mind, it is evident that Lee is aggressively challenging audiences of all races to push back against their instincts and detest what is on screen. For as dehumanizing as it is, of course a minstrel show would look wholeheartedly appealing to audiences. For as much criticism the film received for being too heavy-handed with its message, this is a great example of powerful rhetoric that shows and doesn’t tell. Lee has the audience experience the manipulation that a minstrel show would bring as an everyday TV consumer.
This breakdown of the nuances of Bamboozled were ideas I picked up on my first viewing. I wish most critics back in 2000 did as well. But instead, many reviews fit into the narrative at the time of Spike Lee as the “angry black man” shoving his politics into his movies. The consensus was that the film was messy, overwrought, heavy-handed, and self-important. These critiques are logistically valid. The film certainly pulls no punches and is proverbially waving its arms at audiences yelling “wake up!” as Spike Lee characters tend to do.
Let’s look at the great Roger Ebert’s two star review, a critic who was an early advocate of Lee as one of the best American filmmakers.
“The film is a satirical attack on the way TV uses and misuses African-American images, but many viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused them himself.” Ebert, the legend that he is, critiques film at a primal level. He “had a struggle” when looking beyond the images of black performers in dehumanizing blackface to see its satirical message. Ebert recognizes Lee’s arguments about gangsta rap standing in as the 21st century minstrel show and the general degrading depiction of black people on T.V, but the film ultimately loses him because of the use of blackface as the avatar for his ideas, as he calls it the film’s “fundamental miscalculation.” “Blackface is so blatant, so wounding, so highly charged, that it obscures any point being made by the person wearing it.”
I find that Ebert, along with his longtime television partner Gene Siskel, lets one aspect of the larger story blind his judgment and/or misinterpret the greater point. By integrating blackface, the movie loses him. No where in his review does he mention the home video look of the film and offers no opinion on the purposefully outrageous French accent from Wayans. This sincere thought process when reviewing films is one that I don’t tend to fall back on, but I still find admirable. If anything, we could rely on it more. More people should take certain things at face value. The Russo Brothers should’ve taken face value before they called every film of theirs an homage to paranoia thrillers.
While it has certainly been reclaimed as misunderstood, Bamboozled still feels slightly underappreciated. It still appears to be viewed more as a fascinating relic from a master filmmaker rather than an achievement, and I think it is the latter. I’ll even put my toes in the water of this being maybe my favorite Spike Lee joint. Yes, you’ve been hoodwinked. It’s not Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X. You’ve been bamboozled.