I must have read somewhere that this was an underrated gem or something, because it wound up on my Netflix DVD queue, only to sit there forever with a “very long wait.” Then suddenly it had moved up my list, and then one day it arrived. After all that buildup, I suppose I had some expectations, but they were quickly dashed.
Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a TV writer. He is the only black writer at the network, and he is very non-street, speaking proper English with a clipped accent that is some kind of bizarre mix of British and Robot. His ideas for shows about middle-class black families keep getting shot down in favor of shows that play into America's ghetto-based perceptions of black people. Frustrated, he decides to get himself fired by proposing a show based on the ultimate stereotype, blackface. Shockingly, the network loves his idea for a show about a “couple of real coons” in an Alabama watermelon patch. The show is a hit, and black and white fans alike start wearing blackface.
To say that “Bamboozled” is bad probably misses the point. The film isn't meant as comforting entertainment. Like most of Spike Lee's work, it's meant as a sharp satire on race relations in America. It is discomfiting to see whites and blacks laughing uproariously at blackface humor, based on a portrayal of blacks as ignorant and foolhardy. It doesn't matter that there have been white comedies with equally stupid characters (think “Laurel and Hardy” or “The Honeymooners”), because in the case of blackface, the stupidity is explicitly linked to the characters' race. When you think about it, though, much of rap music isn't different in spirit from blackface, peddling images of black thugs in low-riders and gold chains drinking Crystal champagne, to the delight of white, teenage audiences. Many of our hip-hop artists are actually educated, middle-class, young black men and women, but they have to put on this “blackface” in order to sell records. Then you get a white artist like Iggy Azalea, who raps with a ghetto-black-sounding voice which is completely different from her speaking voice. Is that any different from white entertainers who performed in blackface?
It's interesting to watch the audience as they see Delacroix's minstrel show for the first time. They are stunned, and the white audience members look nervously at the black people in the audience. As the show goes on, and turns out to actually be kind of funny, the black audience members start to laugh, which relaxes the white folks, and soon everyone is enjoying a good time at the expense of those silly coons. I think that Lee was trying to point out how white people look to black people to see how they respond to the portrayal of blacks in entertainment. If black people seem to be enjoying gangsta-rappers using the N-word, then white people figure this must be acceptable.
“Bamboozled” succeeds to the extent that it gets you thinking about these issues, but the movie could have been much better. Some reviewers, like Roger Ebert, have posited that the blackface itself ruins the film, that any message is drowned out by the sheer offensiveness of the blackface. I think this is an overly prissy attitude, though. Blackface perfectly depicts the cultural hypocrisy that “Bamboozled” clumsily tries to expose, and this could have been a smart, cult classic if it were better executed. Unfortunately, Damon Wayans is ill-cast in this role. His bizarre, constantly-shifting accent and uptight demeanor make Delacroix look like a buffoon himself, which sort of goes against the message of the entire movie. Jada Pinkett Smith, on the other hand, refuses to get into character at all. The movie is also filmed with a digital camera that makes it look distractingly awful. Still, it is mostly Wayans's performance that ruins what, with a more talented actor, could have been a legendarily sharp satire.
2 stars out of 5