November 2, 2000

Lost in the Mix

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“This is bizarre,” Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) proclaims at one point in Bamboozled, the latest film hatched from the mind of writer- director-producer Spike Lee. Although she’s referring to a developing television show, her words nevertheless summarize this movie as well, an attempt at a satirical, behind-the-scenes view of the TV industry’s exploitation of black people.

Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated black television writer who seeks to be fired after his latest attempt at creating a smart Cosby-esque show is canned by his boss, Dunwitty (Small Time Crooks’ Michael Rapaport). He schemes to do so by conceiving a show so preposterous that his inevitable unemployment, at least to him, is assured.

Delacroix’s idea is to revive the minstrel show, a form of entertainment once popular in turn-of-the-century segregated America. With his assistant (Pinkett Smith) at his side, he hires two impoverished street performers, played by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson (TV’s In Living Color). Delacroix next presents the radical proposal to his boss, who ironically turns out to be receptive. Among other things, they determine that the two black stars, playing “Alabama porch-monkeys,” will wear blackface makeup.

The show premieres, and to Delacroix’s surprise, it’s a hit. Audiences and critics alike love it (Is Lee mocking the sensibilities of these two groups?) and Delacroix starts to relish in his success. Suffice it to say, the film continues in this vein of fantasy, with events cramming the final fifteen minutes that truly were unexpected.

Bamboozled is presented in a grainy, faux-documentary style, complete with odd camera angles and, at times, actors addressing the camera. Such a manner of presentation, while probably attempting to convey a realistic edge, instead serves to further add to the inherently muddled nature of the movie.

It’s common fare for a satire to be unconventional and peculiar, but Bamboozled pushed the limit. Satires are also supposed to be humorous, but Bamboozled was not. This is practically all due to the use of blackface makeup.

To be perfectly blunt, I found the use of this makeup to be very offensive, and a poor choice on the part of Lee. At one point in the film, an entire studio audience — from young to old — is happily (ignorantly) covered with the stuff. Blackface makeup pervades the atmosphere so thoroughly that the satirical point of the film is simply lost.

On a lesser note, adding to the disappointment was Wayans’ performance. His portrayal of Delacroix is so over-the-top and marred with idiosyncratic articulation that it seemed he was trying to impersonate Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. Bamboozled is evidence enough that Wayans just doesn’t work well in drama.

Bamboozled aims to be a provocative satire, attacking the television industry’s exploitation of blacks. Ultimately, though, this proves too lofty a goal for the film. Instead, it turns into a movie that, despite a hopeful beginning, slowly begins to unravel into a jumbled mess of sheer offensiveness and implausibility. I left the theater more offended than contemplative.

Archived article by Adam Cooper