Black skin, black masks

Spike Lee’s new salvo calls a spade a Stepin Fetchit.

As he looks out on a rapt studio audience, the star of the smash hit “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” has an epiphany and begins to quote Paddy Chayefsky’s famous Network rant, urging the unseen television viewers to go to their windows and yell out. But the words have changed. “I am sick and tired of being a nigger,” he declares, “and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Welcome to Bamboozled, the most incendiary film yet from cultural arsonist Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X). It’s coincidental, but telling, that this scathing satire follows closely on the heels of Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy. That concert film captured the massively successful tour of a group of black comedians who mine humor from detailed knowledge of their community, and are nearly unknown to white America. Bamboozled is, in essence, about that lack of knowledge and how television continually serves up variations of Amos and Andy instead of the specific reality of black life.

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the sole black writer at a major television network, is tired of working for a white executive (Michael Rapaport) who sees himself as being more of a brother than this Harvard-educated buppie with a continental accent. Delacroix creates a minstrel show starring two unknown street performers, tap dancer Manray (Savion Glover) and his comedic sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson).

They’re transformed into “two real coons,” Mantan and Sleep N Eat, who live in a watermelon patch with Aunt Jemima, Sambo and company while the Alabama Porch Monkeys play soothing Southern tunes. The entire cast performs in blackface which, Delacroix reasons, isn’t racist because they are actually black. To his amazement, it’s a runaway hit.

Writer-director Spike Lee has fashioned Bamboozled as a satire about television in the tradition of Network (1976) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), but by adding a specific cultural context he raises the stakes even further and creates an incredibly complex look at race in 21st century America.

Throughout Bamboozled, Lee comments on the roles people adopt for themselves to play (“Pierre Delacroix” is as much a construct as “Sleep N Eat”). A stand-up comedian casually asserts a bold truth: White people want to appropriate black culture (as a style, an attitude), but don’t actually want to deal with what it means to be black. In another sequence, adman Lee creates a commercial for Timmi Hilnigger jeans which encompasses so many issues of assimilation and manipulation, status and class, that it’s mind-boggling.

Shot in digital video, Bamboozled feels as loose and assertive as a bold first film, but also shows the confidence of a veteran. Unfortunately, Lee has populated the film with too many one-note satirical characters while making others, like Delacroix’s overqualified assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), the very model of a mixed message. Why would someone so aware of race in American history help perpetrate such vile stereotypes? And why does this confident, intelligent woman function as a sexual pawn for men trying to assert their own importance?

Even with its flaws, the film serves as an effective platform for Spike Lee to rally against the homogenizing of American culture, the whitewashing of history and the way our mass media equates popularity with stupidity. With Bamboozled, this outspoken filmmaker wants to fire up complacent movie audiences. He’s sure to get his wish.

Read "Watermelon Man" (10/24/00), Larry Gabriel's story about Spike Lee's film which explores America’s legacy of minstrelsy and its present manifestations.

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