David Lynch must have been watching Spike Lee’s Bamboozled closely before he chose to shoot Inland Empire (2006) in a style that can only be described as “surrealist digi-vomit”, as Lee’s use of “Mini DV digital video using the Sony VX 1000 camera” (Wikipedia) results in a uniquely ugly spectacle to which the aforementioned film is a rare bedfellow in senses-attacking digital murk. Digital cinematography has virtually replaced that of celluloid in the years since Bamboozled‘s making, but it’s difficult to imagine from this film’s example that within a mere four years Michael Mann would be using this new technology to create the crisp, high-definition clarity of 2004’s Collateral; in other words, unlike Mann’s brilliant mainstream thriller, Bamboozled never looks particularly cinematic.
I’m talking aesthetics because Lee’s films have tended, with their rich colours and distinctive dolly shots and dizzying montages, to look beautiful – I mean, God, Rodrigo Prieto’s luscious lensing of his next film, 25th Hour (2002) is just out of this world (the blame for Bamboozled‘s cinematography must go to Ellen Kuras, and with Lee for wanting to keep his budget under $10m by shooting with cheaper stock) – and so this aspect of the film disappointed me, but I’d say that Lee is actually a substance-based kind of director; not in the sense that Oliver Stone is a substance-based director who endeavours to shape his films to resemble his favourite acid trips (generally by dropping acid whilst making them), but in the sense that Oliver Stone is a substance-based director with a tonne of big ideas about politics and justice and war and the urgent need for a billion-hour “extended” director’s cut of his interminable shitstory lesson Alexander (2004, and pretty fucking “extended” as it is). Lee is a social commentator with a similarly epic scope; he’s certainly the black director to have attained the most cineaste cred in a cinematic culture dominated by white faces (Tyler Perry is more popular but, um, doesn’t quite get the reviews) and, no matter how annoying some might find him, when he talks about racial politics, they sit up and listen along with his fans. Inevitably, he ends up pissing some people off, as he has done the Chicago establishment by bringing attention to the city’s gun violence epidemic with the announcement of his new film Chiraq. And he pisses people off outside of his films, too, with his outspoken public persona; feuding with Tarantino and Eastwood over the racial insensitivity he sees in their films. But we need directors like Spike Lee; he’s not about making friends, he’s about making masterpieces, and he’s certainly got a few under his belt with Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), 25th Hour (2002) and his eight astonishing hours of documentary work about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, When the Levees Broke (2006) and If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). Although Amazon have now stepped in to fund Chiraq, unfortunately recent years have seen a serious lack of market demand for Lee’s creative vision, resulting in self-funding, Kickstarter, and a depressingly pedestrian remake of Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 film Oldboy (2013) that became the first of his films not to bear the label ‘A Spike Lee Joint.’
Bamboozled is a Spike Lee Joint through and through; brash and uncompromising in its satire. I can’t believe I’ve written two paragraphs without even getting to the outfuckinglandish premise; that of a modern-day minstrel show, broadcast on American network TV to a surprisingly receptive audience. Now, I’m from the proudly colonialist and imperialist island of Little Britain, where our beloved state-funded institution the BBC ran The Black and White Minstrel Show until NINETEEN FUCKING SEVENTY-EIGHT, a whole two decades after Britain’s black population expanded exponentially as a result of immigration from the Commonwealth lands of our imperial spoils (“thanks for all the hard work, guys, here’s some white cunts pretending to be you for twenty-five years.”) Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, Bamboozled‘s light entertainment hate crime, is much like The Black and White Minstrel Show in that it’s a variety show with song and dance, comedy, and extremely questionable animations. However, the actors wearing blackface in the Black and White Minstrel Show were not actually black themselves. Nor was that show set on a watermelon farm. Nor did it have a house band (played here by the Roots) called the Alabama Porch Monkeys.
The idea for the show is cooked up by Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) – whose name can’t help but conjure up images in my head of Bob Dylan “working for a while on a fishing boat” – a Harvard-educated but disillusioned executive for the unimaginatively acronymed TV network CNS. He has to suffer the indignities of working for Michael Rapaport’s Thomas Dunwitty, a (ahem) “wigga” who claims to “know your people better than you do” and happily bandies about the N-word because “I don’t care what that prick Spike Lee says, Tarantino’s right, it’s just a word.” (Oh yes, it’s a very self-referential film; at one point Denzel Washington is namechecked, along with a clip of his masterful performance in Lee’s Malcolm X. Inserted into the digital horror show of Bamboozled, the clip looks incongruously hi-fi.) Wayans plays Delacroix as so snootily Harvardian that his every word drips with the perpetual sarcasm of the Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy. He does not really fit into the aggressively unpleasant Dunwitty’s warped perception of what black people are like. He hates every minute of his job, but can’t quit because he’d be sued for breach of contract. He can, however, create the most awful and objectionable show possibly imaginable; one that is sure to get him fired, so he can move on to pastures new.
Unfortunately, he does not bank on both the blatant racism of his boss and the latent racism of the American public, who lap up its obscene stereotypes; filling out the seats of the studio, blacked up and bawling with laughter. It is certainly a damning verdict from Lee against both the public and the corporate media, whose crass venality he aims to expose rather like Dan Gilroy would later do with his “blood and fear sell” satire Nightcrawler (2014). Delacroix eventually gets swept up in the show’s success, joyously accepting awards and describing himself in voice-over as something like “a grateful negro.” When a colleague played by Jada Pinkett-Smith tries to talk some sense into him, he tells the man she’s seeing that she got her job by sleeping with him, an idea she later rebukes in a righteous monologue.
I complained about the look, and now I must confess that I think Lee dropped the ball on the music too, often simply letting smooth r’n’b jams play incessantly in the background of scenes, or unremarkable instrumental hip-hop of the kind you could hear in any low-budget TV drama in the early 2000s, whereas usually in Lee’s films music is woven seamlessly in with the onscreen action. As well as the Roots, the great rapper Mos Def has a supporting role as the leader of a wannabe Black Panther-esque revolutionary organisation/hip-hop collective who are greatly offended by the minstrel show, prone to making grandiose revolutionary proclamations whilst swigging liquor in their studio, one of whose members is – quite hilariously – white, and – to try and steer clear of unnecessary spoilers – does not meet quite the same fate as the rest of his crew.
The film has some quite grim scenes towards the end (none of them very effectively done), which make it even harder to laugh at than a stylistically rusty film about quite shocking things already was. Its saving grace is a classic Spike Lee montage its close, which collates various instances of blackface and other grotesque stereotypes of black people from TV and film history. At this point it is very clear that Lee is warning how damaging these stereotypes can be to people’s perceptions, and that they cannot be trivialised; but that, his central satirical point, has been evident throughout the entire film. What gets in the way of that satire really hitting home is that the filmmaking is poorly executed and there are not a great many jokes that resonate. So it’s a good idea with a lot of good elements but, whilst the intention – and, hell, the edge – of its satire is undeniable, I wouldn’t say it works as a film.