Spike Lee is pretty well known for being hit and miss as a director. But I think too much is made of his misses, because his hits are so incredibly well aimed. He's one of our great filmmakers, so maybe the human tendency to throw stones at greatness has something to do with why we have so much fun criticizing his work that falls shy of the mark. But maybe, just maybe, it has even more to do with the fact that he's a black filmmaker who often makes uncomfortable films. "Bamboozled" (IMDb listing) surely falls into that category. Luckily for us, it's as rewarding as it is uncomfortable.
Damon Wayans plays with gusto the part of Harvard-educated, oily-throated Pierre Delacroix, a big time television producer who needs to come up with a smash hit of an idea if the network he works for is to recover from the ratings slump it's gotten itself into. After a run-in with his boss--the kind of insidious racist who's too dumb to see that he's a racist--Delacroix makes up his mind to get out of his contract the only way he knows how: by getting fired. The idea he comes up with for a sitcom based on the minstrel shows of old should be a clear ticket to unemployment for the beleaguered producer. But in the world that Spike Lee has crafted, it's all too easy to underestimate the dark potential of white America's seemingly dormant racism. And what Delacroix reasonably expects to cost him his job and cripple the network turns out to be not only a hit, but a phenomenon.
It's the "New Millennium Minstrel Show," and it's got everybody talking. In fact, it's got people saying things they wouldn't have dared utter before Delacroix's brainchild came along and gave them a little secretly yearned-for encouragement. If this had been all that Lee wanted to accomplish with his film, it would have been enough. It's obvious he had a blast kneading the idea of a sleeping but not deceased racism in America. But "Bamboozled" has a whole lot more to say than that. Along its wild and thrilling course, Lee's audacious film satirizes corporate marketing strategies and Ivy League indoctrination. It skewers hip-hop, romance and Quentin Tarantino. Nothing is sacred. But there's one thing Bamboozled explores with more depth and passion than anything else: the inexorable paradox that exists between the rich history of black American entertainment and the menace that's never been far removed from it. "How does one go about preserving such a vibrant legacy without keeping old pains alive?" Lee seems to be asking. Amazingly, his film is also an answer of sorts.
Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are incredible as the street performers Delacroix hires to dance and joke and smile real big in his epic production. Jada Pinkett Smith and Paul Mooney provide the other two standout performances of the film, as Delacroix's assistant and father respectively. But the film is loaded with small touches of brilliance from the entire cast and shouldn't be missed on any account. It is not, however, a flawless film. In fact it bears the same two flaws that prevented me from fully enjoying "American Beauty": the voiceover narration continues after the narrator is dead, and violence is brought in as a Trojan horse at the end of an otherwise non-violent film--though to give Lee his due, one gets the sense that he's trying to say something about racism begetting violence; it just doesn't quite work. But don't worry, "Bamboozled" has plenty of meat on its bones. You'll barely notice the occasional pair of skinny legs hiding inside the baggy pants. Maybe not at all, depending on how hard you're laughing.
Filmfodder Grade: B+