[box cover]

Bamboozled: Platinum Series

Early in its first draft stage, long before the digital video cameras hummed, there might have been a smartly observed satire beating at the heart of Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000). On the other hand, maybe the film's layers of fatty, gristly message-making muffled that heart from day one, clogging its arteries and choking off oxygen to the brain and other vital tissues. 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. Could 1989's Do the Right Thing have been a fluke? Could be, at least from the evidence of Bamboozled, Lee's angry social parable aimed at the depictions of African Americans in mainstream entertainment, particularly television. An outspoken critic of racial stereotypes in the media, Lee uses Bamboozled to equate the ugly caricatures of early minstrel shows to the images of black Americans found this week on UPN, Fox, WB, and elsewhere. It's a topic worth exploring.

But Lee doesn't prod and stimulate us into examining whether things have changed much since the bad old days of blackface hoofers, shuffling Steppin Fetchits, and Aunt Jemimah. He's already made up our mind for us. And where most of us in his audience will lean forward to hear a whisper, we turn away from a shout. Lordy, how Bamboozled shouts. Lee may have started with a worthy agenda, but the result is dogmatic, indulgent, sectarian, blunt, and drunkenly off-balance. In other words, prejudiced and therefore unmoving.

Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a starched buppy unhappy from slaving as the token black writer for a major yet struggling TV network. His redneck-in-an-Armani boss (Michael Rapaport) fancies himself "blacker" than Delacroix, and while that's a white-homey absurdity it rings true because of how far Delacroix has separated himself from his own background — his name isn't really Pierre Delacroix, he speaks with nearly painful deliberateness in an Ivy-League-elite accent, and he is embarrassed by his father (Paul Mooney), a stand-up comic who goes by the name Junebug in small, black-only clubs. Because Delacroix's boss believes that "keeping it real" means putting out more "black experience" television peopled by home-boy caricatures, Delacroix wants out. But he's under contract so his only way out is to get himself fired.

His plan for getting fired? Create a TV show so offensive to blacks that the network will have no choice but to can Delacroix before it's buried in outraged hate mail. Aided by his level-headed conscientious assistant (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix dupes two homeless street entertainers (comic Tommy Davidson and tapdance marvel Savion Glover, who is almost worth the rest of the movie to watch) into starring in Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. There they play the lazy shuckin'-and-jivin' caricatures Sleep-n-Eat and Mantan, "two real coons" complete with exaggerated blackface and "niggah, here comes massah!" pop-eyed mugging on the set of an Alabama watermelon plantation. Surely a recipe for failure. Yet problems pile up for Delacroix (and Bamboozled's script) when Mantan, predictably, turns out to be a huge ratings hit and critical success.

Instead of a pointed and revealing satire borrowing a "Springtime for Negroes" plot device from The Producers (plus threads lifted from Network and Sunset Boulevard), Bamboozled spins downward until it confuses melodrama for potency, soap operatics for poignancy, and appearances by Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran for dramatic credibility. Delacroix loses sight of his principles and his soul when the awards start piling up. Mantan (Glover) loses a great deal more when a gang of hoodlum rappers (led by Mos Def) decide that they're going to make him pay for his portrayal of a Steppin Fetchit "darkie." So everyone ends up sliding down the grease-paint pole to hell, but by then there's so little personal empathy for anyone onscreen that it's impossible to feel moved by any of it.

Lee wants to expose double-standards and push buttons. Good. Yes, please. But which buttons becomes unclear as he keeps adding to the list as he goes. Is it the depiction of blacks in TV shows created by whites? The soul-eating effects of modern media power and influence? How about the signs of self-made culpability such as the neo-minstrel stereotypes perpetuated by ghetto-chic hip-hop and rap personas? Or the whites who play at (literally here, metaphorically in our world) blackface and proudly call themselves "nigger"? Or the travails of upward-bound women professionals, especially the sexy ones? Maybe the unfocused "revolutions" of Afrocentric Malcolm-X wannabes? "Unfocused" is a key word here, and by the end it's easier to ask Lee "What exactly was your point?" than it is to come away with an enlightened social awareness.

*          *          *

New Line's Bamboozled: Platinum Series offers a good transfer (1.78:1, anamorphic) derived mostly from a mini-digital video source blown up to 35mm. (The clips of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show were filmed on 16mm.) Presumably Lee aimed for a you-are-there docu-drama look; instead what we see more is how often the DV source loads Bamboozled with low-budget deficiencies in lighting and clarity. The audio is clear but otherwise unremarkable Dolby Digital 5.1. (The rap music sounds terrific here, I must say. Don't have a drink set on your subwoofer.)

The disc's extras stumble to a start with Lee's commentary track. Apparently his heart wasn't in it, and at times the track seems to have been recorded after a bad day stuck in traffic. He spends time merely narrating the action, or not saying anything at all, or blustering something sanctimonious, defensive, or generally pissy.

Other extras include an overload of 19 deleted or extended scenes, a thorough but tiresome rah-rah making-of documentary (53 mins.), two uninspired music videos, an animated gallery of artwork created for the film (some images here are quite good on their own), cast and crew filmographies, and the theatrical trailer. DVD-ROM items are a "Script to Screen" feature that presents the original script while the movie plays, and "Original Website," which just copies over material from the film's official promo site. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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