Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Studio: The Criterion Collection
May 12, 2020
By Ed McMenamin
When filming Bamboozled, director Spike Lee’s infamous, furious and confrontational 2000 film on black representation in American culture, extras didn’t know they’d be portraying audience members in a fictional minstrel show pitched in the film by a black TV scribe hoping to get fired.
When two black actors take the stage in blackface to shuck and jive in the horrific routines of America’s minstrel tradition, the crowd’s reactions are honest. Many of the white extras show discomfort and embarrassment. Many of the black extras in the audience register disgust, shock or anger. Lee said what happens on screen reflects what happened in the room during filming. Soon the white audience members glance over their shoulder to see if it’s OK to laugh, waiting for implicit permission by their black counterparts. Whether audience members laugh out of discomfort—or because of racism, or despite racism, or because the performance of over-the-top racist tropes from a bygone era are ridiculous and absurd—is a question for each individual.
Their personal answers to that question reflects how satire is often misunderstood for the very object it is skewering: see some mid-2000s white Americans who quoted Chappelle Show sketches, not in mockery of the stereotypes and absurdity that Dave Chappelle skewered, but in mockery of black Americans themselves. It’s a warning for how America’s insidious cultural history of distortion, disregard and disfigurement of black identity remains—Uncle Ben’s Rice in the cupboard, Aunt Jemima syrup in the fridge—vestiges of a seemingly ancient and brutal culture that persist in negative stereotypical depictions. Even so, Bamboozled was poorly received by critics and at the box office in 2000. But its reputation has grown—as evidenced by the deluxe Criterion treatment—as his incisive commentary on race in America remains disturbingly relevant.
Lee’s formal experiments work better than some of the film’s performances. He shot Bamboozled in cold, unforgiving digital video with the exception of the minstrel sequences, which were captured on lush 16mm film, highlighting the contrast between the ugly reality of TV boardrooms and the final presentation to the audience. During promotional tours for the film, he lambasted the limited roles available to black performers—stretching back to the maid and servant characters of old Hollywood to their modern “magical Negro” equivalents in The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile.
“Lee spoke ominously of a contemporary media machine insistent on twisting old negative racial stereotypes into new forms of neo-minstrelsy, particularly in the arenas of gangsta rap, mainstream film-making, and TV programming,” wrote Ashley Clark in an essay accompanying the Criterion release.
In Bamboozled, the TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) overestimates American’s vigilance against its most blatantly racist traditions. Like in The Producers, Delacroix’s “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” becomes a runaway hit—to his initial horror. By the second or third episode, the audience is wearing blackface, children dress as minstrels for Halloween, and Delacroix sells his soul to the Nielsen ratings devil, justifying his own work to himself and his morally centered assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith). Wayans gives an absolutely bizarre performance as Delacroix, a pretentious and Harvard-educated man born Peerless Dothan, who, in Lee’s description, never felt comfortable with his own black identity and created a new one. Delacroix speaks with an effete, nasally nose-in-the air exhaustion, somewhere between Chappelle’s comic “white-guy” voice and various sketch characters Wayans made famous on In Living Color. It’s an unpleasant performance in an purposefully unpleasant film, broadly over-the-top in a way that seems to signal unease with the daringness of the project, and perhaps a lack of confidence that the audience will know satire when they see it. Better to beat them over the head with it.
Michael Rapaport delivers an equally off-putting performance as his white racist boss Thomas Dunwitty—the kind of guy whose walls are lined with portraits of black athletes and doesn’t believe he’s racist because he has black friends. He only enjoys stories about black Americans that exaggerate negative stereotypes for laughs. He uses the worst racial epithet to Delacroix’s face and then claims to have earned the privilege by marrying a black woman. Delacroix rightfully fantasizes throttling him. Dunwitty refuses to green-light scripts written with successful or middle-class black characters, pushing Delacroix to total frustration, and in effect giving Dunwitty the kind of self-abasement and demeaning character treatment that the white executive craves.
Dunwitty is ecstatic when Delacroix presents the minstrel show script, and they hire two itinerant street performers played by fellow In Living Color vet Tommy Davidson and renowned tap dancer Savion Glover. Davidson and Glover give underrated and heartbreaking performances as talented men with no opportunities who take a paycheck where they can find it, at risk of their own soul and safety.
When they use the ash from burned cork as blackface paint—using the same method as the original minstrel show performers—decades of pain, resentment and collective trauma emerge as unscripted tears. The actors on screen prepare to exploit themselves on stage for the hooting audience, and it’s all almost too much to bear. It’s one of a handful of incredibly powerful moments in a daring, courageous and uneven film that is worth seeing despite its flaws. Lee rewrote the racist subtext of a thousand Hollywood films as the main text, loud and center, impossible to ignore.
Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @EdMcMenamin