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Jada Pinkett Smith listens to Damon Wayans drone on about the cinematic merits of "Major Payne."

© 2000, New Line Cinema
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Has Spike Lee lost his touch? If the example is "Bamboozled" (IMDb listing) then yes, Lee has lost all of his social relevance with this meandering, condescending rubbish. I'm sure Spike himself would label me a racist for hating his new film, however the message of "Bamboozled" is that at one point in America, we were up to our armpits in bigotry. We documented our hate. We bought and sold our prejudice, offering the world a taste. It's a terrible chapter in American history that has yet to be resolved, but Lee's new film is not the vessel to be educated from. "Bamboozled" is misguided and often preachy. It suggests itself the cultural reminder that we are not as racially tolerant as we might think we are.

Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, an upper-class African-American TV producer confronting the autumn years of his career. Facing possible termination from his skillfully impatient Caucasian boss (Michael Rapaport), Delacroix, with the help of his assistant Sloan (an abrasive Jada Pinkett Smith), takes two homeless performers (Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover) and turns them into Mantan and Sleep Ôn' Eat, the stars of a new minstrel show that becomes all the rage in America. As the show takes over the nation, turning the population into a racist, black-faced horde, Delacroix finds his self-loathing climbs to new levels, and is forced to confront the racial damage that has been a staple of American popular entertainment for years.

It's easy to see what Lee is going for. As a nation, we watch shows like "Good Times" and "In Living Color," and we laugh (sometimes) at the pratfalls and outlandish behavior that has become standard in African American entertainment. With "Bamboozled," what Lee is suggesting is that shows like "The Jeffersons" and honored films like "Birth of a Nation" have actually been eroding the ethnic lines for centuries. When you look back at 100 years of television and motion pictures and all you can come up with is "The Cosby Show" in terms of positivity, Lee's point is dead on.

I'm not disagreeing with Lee's ideas, but as a wise man once said "You cannot enjoy a Snickers covered in poo." "Bamboozled" is a film filled with brilliant ideas on race and cultural icons, yet Lee's screenplay is one of the worst he has ever written. It's full of rage, yet has no viable ideas in which to deliver its messages. Lee's film can kick and scream all it wants, yet it offer no answers or suggestions for a brighter future. Whether through direction or screenwriting, "Bamboozled" comes dangerously close to whining. I cannot imagine that was Spike's intent.

I should've known things with the outspoken director were amiss when Lee's "Girl 6" couldn't find an ending for itself. It's been a problem that has nagged him ever since. A director once known for mixing race issues with dramatic gold ("Do the Right Thing"), Lee has stumbled mightily in recent years, often giving birth to wildly uneven pictures that have less and less of an impact as the running time drones on past the two hour mark. At 135 minutes, "Bamboozled" is a pretentious bore. A classroom lecture instead of a dramatic piece. Yes Spike, I get it. Nothing has changed since the days of "Amos 'n' Andy." We are all terrible people for laughing at it, and we will all roast in hell forever.

With the actual minstrel footage, Lee has the chance to drive home a point by having the film audience get caught laughing at the corkfaced theatrics. It's really too bad that Lee is unable to make this section of the film funny, because it is such a ripe opportunity to make a real and concrete point about our very own racial prejudices. Blown opportunities seem to be what "Bamboozled" is all about.

Maybe it's the way Damon Wayans violently overacts? Maybe it's the way the screenplay has little interest in the confusing character that Tommy Davidson plays? Maybe Savion Glover's complete lack of acting capability kills the message? It's practically everything in "Bamboozled" that holds the film from breaking new ground. It is quite telling that in the film's final moments, we see a montage of all the demeaning footage from the years and it makes more of an impression than the 133 minutes of narrative that has come before. Perhaps if Spike had created a documentary out of this idea, we all could've been taught, touched, and redeemed. However, "Bamboozled's" finale has its characters running around with guns, murdering each other. That's right, murdering each other. It has very little to do with the original idea of the film and reeks of a grabby feel that Lee usually never has to stoop for. I think Lee and director Robert Altman need to go back to "ending" school and bone up.

It's brutal to sit through "Bamboozled's" final act, as if Spike Lee is playing some big joke on film audiences by releasing the most unorganized film known to man. If his "Get on the Bus" hadn't come before, Lee's lack of dramatic construction would've truly amazed. All "Bamboozled" can manage to do is remind us that another great talent has lost his voice.

Filmfodder Grade: D

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