Jan 20, 2008

Ethical Responsibility and Race Relations in BAMBOOZLED

One of the most interesting aspects of Spike Lee’s much-maligned Bamboozled is that it neglects to mention that in the original blackface minstrel shows of early America, some of them were put on by abolitionist advocates and used the blackface format as a means to portray the situation of blacks in a sympathetic light, often pointing out white American double-standards and injustices against black people. The film itself contains a wealth of cultural references, historical information, and general awareness of all race issues in general, and it never points out this fact. But it doesn’t really matter at all. The omission of this fact seems completely deliberate as the film innately shows awareness to this irony in its main message. All broadcasted or even written information lives as a virus, and film itself is perhaps the most powerful form of all information. When information is disseminated enough, the simple ideas being communicated are what stick to people’s minds, not the sophistication or intellectual subtlety behind these ideas. That is what Bamboozled is chiefly about, and that is why the film works so incredibly well on so many different levels.

Perhaps the greatest mark of Lee’s success in this film is the overwhelming amount of negative criticism the film garnered at the hands of white and Jewish liberal intellectuals. Leftists in general cannot handle the idea that art can be anything more than just art. When anyone points out that information has an impact on the people who view it, whether it’s through children becoming more violent after watching Home Alone or women acting dumber and more whorish in the wake of the countless feminist “female empowerment” movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, you can be sure that a chord will have been struck with the modern leftist. It is not enough to simply view Bamboozled, because a full appreciation of this film cannot be attained unless one sees the confused and noticeably insecure reviews of it as well. It is my own belief that if Bamboozled was greeted with nothing but overwhelming positivity from the very people that Lee is satirizing, he would have failed miserably. But fortunately, this is not the case. The two most common issues with the film that I have observed from Bamboozled’s many negative reviews are that the film has a “confused message,” and that it is not funny. Both of these criticisms are absolutely wrong: Bamboozled has a very consistent message, and it also is extremely funny.

The film is about a black television executive named Pierre DeLacroix (Damon Wayans), a man with a contrived white accent, who is frustrated at the network for refusing his various show ideas for legitimate entertainment that does not degrade or pejoratively portray blacks. His boss is a condescending young go-getter named Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport) who masks his own racism by appropriating his own interest in black culture. He frequently says the word “nigger,” and although he makes no attempt to rationalize it other than by saying “it’s just a word,” he noticeably feels a sense of entitlement as shown through his interest in black sports figures, black entertainment, and his own black wife and two biracial children. As he puts it to Pierre, “Brother man, I’m blacker than you.” Pierre’s big idea is to create a variety show so extraordinarily offensive that it will accomplish two main objectives: to reveal the network for being as racist and obscene as it is, and to get himself fired. Pierre concocts a blackface minstrel variety show entitled Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show and what actually happens is the exact opposite of what he thought would happen. Not only does the show do extremely well, but Pierre becomes enraptured in the surprising success, turning himself into Hollywood’s new favorite Negro.

The pilot episode is perhaps the most telling part of the entire movie, giving an explanation to the logic behind the show’s success. Mantan and his partner Sleep’n’Eat, two down-on-their-luck street performers (formerly known as Manray and Womack) who get hired for the show, explain to the audience that they want to take them back to a time when “niggers knew their place.” Mantan then instructs the audience to yell out of their windows, “I’m tired of the drugs. I’m tired of the crack babies born out of wedlock to crackhead AIDS-infested parents. I’m tired of the inflated welfare rolls while good wholesome Americans bring less and less of their paycheck home every two weeks.” In the same monologue, Mantan chastises (presumably black) professional athletes for having sex with prostitutes and doing drugs while claiming to be Christian. He then concludes the monologue by instructing the audience to yell, “I’m sick and tired of niggers and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now, while the internal logic of the show is confused, the element of satire within the show’s presentation becomes quite apparent. The message of Mantan is that any attempt to try and improve the lives of black Americans is akin to bringing them back to the days of slavery and robbing them of their freedom, that the whole idea behind trying to get blacks off of drugs and into the job market is simply a way for whites to continue to enslave them and rob them of their own unique culture. And, of course, the idea behind Bamboozled is that sentiments such as these are complete bullshit.

Nevertheless, white and black liberals watching the show absolutely love it, presumably because they identify with this idea, and the critics universally hail the show as a fearless comedy that breaks boundaries and barriers. One of the reasons Bamboozled confuses so many people is because it is a satire that satirizes a satire, and the two messages of each presentation are extremely different. To add to the complexity of the film, Mantan’s New Millenium Minstrel Show is not portrayed as aesthetically bad. Rather, the opposite is true: it’s aesthetically wonderful. The writing is slick, the dancing and music performances are excellent, the sets are well-crafted, and the comedy is hilarious. Spike Lee even highlights this idea by having the segments of Mantan shot in 35mm film, while the rest of Bamboozled is shot in very ugly and crude digital film. Ultimately, however, despite its positive qualities, the message of Mantan leaves a devastating impact on the community. Mantan is more than a fictitious minstrel show: it is an allegory for almost all corporate black entertainment in the 21st century. It makes use of talented black entertainers but utilizes their talents to communicate all the wrong messages. Thus, in the film, Lee equates gangsta rap with minstrel shows and plays a heavy role in attacking rap culture. One example is in an ad for Timmy Hillnigger clothes (a play on Tommy Hilfiger) in which Hillnigger himself tells his black consumers, “If you want to keep it really real, never get out of the ghetto, stay broke, and continue to add to my multibillion dollar corporation.” 

To add another level of complexity, Lee introduces an afrocentric rap group called the Mau-Maus who absolutely hate Mantan but are nevertheless a product of its influence. The Mau-Maus, while auditioning for the show in hopes of landing the role for a band called “The Alabama Porch Monkeys,” explain exactly what they are all about in their own lyrics: “Freedom, reparation and apologies, from Africa to America odysseys, guerilla-type tactics on that socialistic fallacy, the devastation of the social darwinistic thought to keep a brown man down sport.” In spite of their grandiose mission statement, the Mau-Maus are equally led astray by the mass bombardment of harmful media images. At one point, they are shown drinking Da Bomb Malt Liquor, a beverage advertised specifically for black people in the ghetto. Showing similar hypocrisy near the end of the film in a far less subtle fashion, the Mau-Maus kidnap and murder Mantan while each wearing blackface minstrel Halloween masks. The idea behind their presence in the film then becomes very clear, which is that even well-intentioned people can be warped enough by media to the point where they become everything they are trying to fight against.

Another aspect of the film that people believe to be counterintuitive to its message is within the presence of a Jewish media relations consultant. Since New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein did such a fantastic job of explaining the scenario, I will use his writing to lay it out:
When the network brings in a Jewish consultant named Myrna Goldfarb (Dina Pearlman) to advise on a public-relations strategy, her mere presence is treated as an affront. In an attempt to defend her perspective, she mentions having lived with a black man and adds that her parents had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala. But Sloan and De-La don't buy her empathy, and neither does the movie. I'd like to say that any Jews who'd appear in a Spike Lee "joint" are traitors to their people, but I'm afraid I'd sound too much like Lee. Does he want that to be his legacy? He makes it so much easier to resign ourselves to our racism.”

While Edelstein does a great job at offering his frothing, confounded perspective on how a Hollywood movie could actually portray a Jewish person as less than 100% morally altruistic, he also hints at one of the great truths to the movie. Failing to note that Myrna instructs Pierre to hire only black employees, wear kente cloth, invoke the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, and use the word ‘community’ when talking about Mantan, Edelstein has picked up on the fact that she represents a Jewish stereotype – a neglected, archaic, obscure stereotype rarely found in any mainstream media, but a stereotype nonetheless. Bamboozled is not any attempt to encourage a strengthened sense of staunch political correctness in America, but rather an attempt to encourage responsibility and taking pride in one’s actions and behaviors. Black people are far more likely to give birth out of wedlock, commit homicide, commit rape, or commit robbery than the Jews, and their unemployment and poverty levels are also much higher as well. For Dina Pearlman, the stakes are relatively low for her strengthening the idea that Jews are shrewd, amoral corporate shills. For a black actor to accept a role as a slovenly, ignorant or violent human being, the stakes are much higher for the message being communicated. Moreover, the bombardment of negative black images marketed as supposedly being by, for, and about the black community is quite common in today’s culture. The ivy-league educated Pierre DeLacroix could be a premature parody of Reggie Hudlin with his Harvard degree, five years before becoming the BET Programming Chief, but ultimately, it does not matter. When Edelstein writes, “[Spike Lee] makes it so much easier to resign ourselves to our racism,” what he actually means is, “Spike Lee is pointing out that racial issues are still relevant today, and this offends me.” This lack of responsibility from all sides is a phenomenon much too common in American culture.

The subtlety of Bamboozled is perhaps at its strongest when the name of Martin Luther King is evoked, but not in a very endearing way. As previously mentioned, the Jewish media relations consultant exploits her own parents’ work as a means to make herself look less racist, and true enough, the Jews did play a major role alongside Dr. King’s activities in the Civil Rights movement. DeLacroix himself also explains, while rationalizing the intent of the show to the two main actors, that, “The good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King did not enjoy seeing his people beaten on the 6:00 news. However, white people needed to see that in order to move this country to change. They need to see this show for that exact same reason.” It seems as though Lee is asking if anything has seriously changed since then. He is not complimenting the tactics of King, but instead criticizing them through DeLacroix’s appraisal. The days of Malcolm X have long since ended, and his ideas have been thoroughly kicked aside by just about everyone with the exception of a small and dwindling number of cultural figures. Bamboozled takes place in a post-Malcolm X society, where his ideas are alluded to here and there (such as in the title of the film), but his name is never mentioned once. It does not seem to be any kind of coincidence that Malcolm X once called Dr. King an Uncle Tom, and in the film we see King’s named used by only the most smarmy and avaricious of intellectuals for no real altruistic purpose whatsoever. Dr. King’s named is actually used to justify the most racist images one could possibly imagine on television. This is probably the most important and offensive touch to the film: Lee is not championing the sort of Civil Rights causes that sought to find acceptance and tolerance from white people by being passive and complacent. He is advocating responsibility, personal empowerment, and strength. These are ideas that most white and Jewish liberals simply cannot handle, or even find frightening. 

Of course, the movie does have its flaws. The sentimentality does run a bit thick at times near the end, and viewers might find some of the funniest dialogue to be in the most poignant scenes, which can admittedly be jarring. For example, while Pierre’s dignified, intelligent comedian father (Paul Mooney) talks to him about responsibility, he tells Pierre that in every black man is a born entertainer. I found this understated line pretty funny in an otherwise serious context. Another (unintentionally?) hilarious moment occurs when, after the police have shot nearly all of the Mau-Maus to death, the sole remaining member, a white man named 1/16th Blak, screams out, “I’m black too… it only takes one drop of black blood.” Perhaps the idea should have been moved to an earlier scene, so the audience could simply watch on, aghast at the brutal fallout of this minstrel show. The most biting commentary and subversive dialogue happens at places where perhaps the film should refrain from being controversial. But it is also the controversial element of the film that cements its relevance today, especially in a country where it is frowned upon to discuss racial issues in any meaningful manner. Spike Lee had to show an overwhelming level of audacity for Bamboozled to be made, and sure enough, the studios responded by allowing it only to be made on a shoestring budget. Rather than hurting it overall, it is entirely because of this intellectual audacity within studio constraints and outside pressures that Bamboozled stands as a classic, not only as Spike Lee’s greatest film, but also one of the greatest films on race relations ever made.

-Blind Lame OKB


Anonymous said...

Wow! Its been a while since I saw Bamboozled.

While I can agree with a lot of what you said, I must admit that some of the film's intentions escaped me, too.

I recall enjoying most of the film, but the very end seemed out of place, some how.

After reading your review, I will certainly give Bamboozled anohter viewing.

Sirius Gray said...

Thank you very much for this great review. I just finished watching bamboozled and was so struck by it, i've spent the last few hours reading up every review online, totally at a loss as to why this movie was trashed by the critics.

Now I understand. Well said.