Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bamboozled, or, Blackface is Bad The Movie

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Southland Tales, calling it the most bizarre major studio movie of our era. Bamboozled is the only film I've seen that can really be considered competition. But while Southland Tales is an incoherent mess, it's still a single incoherent mess. Bamboozled, on the other hand, suffers from severe Multiple Personality Disorder.

The main part of Bamboozled acts as a kind of race-tinged Network with a dash of The Producers. Damon Wayans stars as the only black writer for a major network, who gets called out by his boss (Michael Rapaport) for his tame, Cosby-like show pitches. Wayans decides to prove...something or another by pitching a show so hideously racist that his boss will understand...I really don't know. One of the major problems with the film is that both the characters and the film itself appear to have no real concept of cause-and-effect. At any rate, Wayans' pitch is Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show. Because the film takes place in something that only superficially resembles reality, the hideously racist variety show somehow becomes a massive hit. Hilarity fails to ensue.

Network took a similarly absurd premise and generally made it work, based on superb over-the-top performances from its cast, thanks to dramatic monologue after dramatic monologue. Bamboozled's cast can't hold its own. Wayans' annoying affectation of an accent helps bring most scenes around him to a screeching halt, and Jada Pinkett Smith is merely competent in a film that demands insanity. The smaller characters are often better, such as Mos Def's inane radical rapper, who demands to not be called by his slave name, instead as his revolutionary chosen name: Big Black African. (note: most clips are rather not safe for work if you don't have headphones.)

When Mos Def and Michael Rapaport's characters are on-screen, the film starts to work as a satire or parody filled with outsized characters, absurd situations, and a devastating critique of the kind of institutional racism which masquerades as multiculturalism and tolerance. The high point of the film occurs when, once the New Millenium Minstrel Show becomes a hit, the network brings in a PR guru to counter claims that the show might be racist. Wayans is still operating under the impression that he's making the show to prove the point that the show is bad (or whatever), and skillfully eviscerate the consultant's defense of racism:

(consultant scene begins at roughly 8:12 and continues into Part 8)

These scenes are from a movie I'd love to see. They just happen to collide with another movie I'd also be interested in seeing, and the collision turns out terribly for all involved. It often feels like, during the creation of the film, Spike Lee came across so much intense historical footage of blackface, sambos, and minstrel shows that he wanted to make a documentary about just how ghastly this stuff was, and how it still pervades our culture. Several montages of these historical artifacts, as well as a collection of Sambo dolls Wayans begins to collect, and some beautifully tragic scenes where the actors put on their blackface in the traditional fashion show Lee's unsuppressed rage and sadness. They also never mesh with the Network-like satire or the disposable relationship drama of the rest of the film. More than anything, most of Bamboozled feels like several unrelated scripts thrown together, with actors playing the same characters while the tone, style, and plot change from scene to scene, almost totally inexplicably - it's often downright amateurish.

The end of the film, which follows Network's lead into over-the-top violence and tragedy, just makes things worse. Wayans, at some point, inexplicably changes from hating his show to being its staunch defender, and everything just falls apart from there. It ends with Wayans repudiating the entire minstrel show concept, destroying his entire collection of Sambos, and closes on a montage of minstrely and sambos. The montage is shocking and powerful, and includes thingslike tiny Shirley Temple dancing in a minstrel show, but it ends the film on a simplistic, unsatirical note: blackface is bad!


Todd Gwynn said...

Spike Lee brought back blackface with Bamboozled. It was no accident. The movie itself is about a guy who makes a TV show involving blackface, which causes a major blackface resurgence.

Just replace "a guy" with Spike Lee, and "TV show" with "movie" and there you have it.

Rowan said...

I haven't really seen a major blackface resurgence, except perhaps for Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder - which is played for absurdity. Where else has it been "brought back?" Particularly based on this flop of a movie?

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Renaissance Poet said...

This film definitely argued that Spike Lee is incapable of subtlety. Which is not a negative remark-- I think a lot of art should be intense and in your face. But satire is a rather subtle form. I think the necessary and important rage that Spike Lee expresses about blackface minstrelsy needs a stronger medium than satire. And, therein, the movie becomes uneven.

For the record, I thought this was Jada's best role and she did a good job with it.