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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Bamboozled

Starring: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Michael Rapaport, Savion Glover, Mos Def, Tommy Davidson, Charli Baltimore, Al Sharpton

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Though creating an ambiguous central character in his most mature work, "Bamboozled," Spike Lee harbors no ambivalence in his overall viewpoint, which (as I see it) is this: Each period in history finds a class that oppresses and a group that is oppressed. The oppressed may freely parody the actions of the people in power. Satire is a creative way of deflating the powerful with ridicule. Satire, however, is inexcusable if used by the strong against the weak. If white people in general have the upper hand against black people, they may not in good conscience use their power to poke fun at African-Americans. Whites may, however, mock other whites, which makes movies like "The Three Stooges" permissible. Whites may not ethically have anything to do with subjugating members of minority groups--who have traditionally been on the raw end of the stick throughout U.S. history.

To illustrate his viewpoint long and hard but with a great deal of laughter and general entertainment value, Lee poses a scenario in which the white vice president of a major TV network, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), concerned about the plummeting ratings of his station, encourages his one black writer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) to push the envelope. Delacroix, a successful, Harvard-educated man with an affected upper-class accent, is sufficiently humiliated with his role at a network that has little room for African- Americans on its staff to want out. Since he cannot violate his contract by quitting, he creates a show that is politically so outrageously incorrect that he expects the pilot to be rejected and presumes that he will be canned without violating his employment agreement. Trouble ensues when the program instead becomes a huge hit.

What Delacroix has done is to create essentially a minstrel show, the type of entertainment that began in the U.S. in 1840 in which blacks are stereotyped as ignorant and willing to follow the orders of the ruling whites without question. (The show is so politically incorrect that in fact the New York Times refused to accept advertising from the studio that features African-Americans in blackface as "too demeaning.") Delacroix hires a couple of desperate individuals, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), a street- peddling tap dancer and his promoter respectively, giving them roles as Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat, and taping a weekly show with stage characters in blackface in historically debasing characterizations--including a band of pickaninnies and Alabama Porch Monkeys who eat watermelon with gusto and dance up a storm. As the program soars in ratings, Delacroix becomes more conflicted, torn between his hatred of his own father's humiliating role as a stand-up, black- hating comic, his mother's race-conscious conscience, and the increasing disgust of his attractive assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Regardless of our antipathy toward the long abandoned era of blackface, Aunt Jemimas, and the slew of cartoons (which Lee trots out with relish toward the conclusion of the film), we in the audience cannot help being entertained by what transpires on the stage and to be absorbed in the backstage manipulations of the writer, his boss, and a group of so-called Mau Maus headed by Big Black (Mos Def) who are absolutely appalled by the degradation they witness from Delacroix's performers on TV. There is little doubt where Spike Lee's sympathies lie, and while the Mau Maus ultimately take extreme action to end the successful TV series, Mr. Lee is obviously furious at the entire chronicle of white exploitation of blacks and by blacks who allow themselves to be manipulated by taking part in the designs of the so-called ruling class. We suspect that even a program that many would consider fairly innocuous like The Jeffersons would strike a sour note in Lee's consciousness but that a production such as The Cosby Show would be more to his liking. As Lee ultimately demonstrates in his movie, the blacks who take part in the designs of white TV producers very much share in the guilt. "There is always a choice," says one of the characters, and we do see indications that at least one of the performers in the network weekly series is perfectly willing to give up his perks and return to a life of integrity and poverty.

Lee's principal flaw this time around is his lack of cohesiveness in designing a movie that plays more like a series of fun skits than a solid narrative. Repeating the acts of the pickaninnies and the principal players over and over gains no additional points for Mr. Lee and in fact the overkill takes away from his contentions as does the contrived, melodramatic ending. Damon Wayans is particularly notable in demonstrating a direction that tears him apart on the one hand in his liking for material success and on the other by his collaboration with the power structure in degrading his people. Other stand-outs are Savion Glover, who taps up a storm as he did on Broadway recently in "Noise/Funk" and Michael Rapaport as the white vice president who feels he has the right to use the "N" word because his wife is black and his kids are bi-racial. Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton make cameo appearances as themselves, rallying the troops against the reactionary TV series. The film could have been better with more attention to structure and a more generous use of the editor's shears.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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