09 July 2009

Flashback at the movies: Bamboozled.

Beyond its uneven and bludgeoning tone, beyond its odd misogyny and antisemitism, beyond its stupefying central performance from Damon Wayans, and beyond the dreadful second ending (the film has three by my count), Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is the first film of 2000 that I honestly believe every American should see. The warts-and-all screenplay is the story of Peerless Dothan (Damon Wayans), a television writer so desperate to assimilate into the TV mainstream that he obliterates his own ethnic heritage by using the name Pierre Delacroix. Continually frustrated with the resistance shown his sensitive and intelligent scripts about middle class black families, he decides to get himself fired by creating ManTan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, wherein black actors in blackface sing, dance, and perform skits in a watermelon patch in Alabama. It causes a furor, public opinion is diverse and vocal, and ManTan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show becomes a hit.

Is it possible for such a thing to happen? Lee’s point is that given the preponderance of hoodcoms on UPN and the WB (and he is not afraid to name names either, as the maligned Tommy Hilfiger will attest to) and the recent upswing in the trend of ghetto fabulousness, blackface is just a more obvious incarnation of the destructive racism that plagues society and (more specifically) television today. And there are sequences in this film that are absolutely merciless in their attack on complacent attitudes and foolish traditions regarding racism, just as there are scenes so utterly wrongheaded that one can’t help but be struck by their incongruity with the densely packed morality tale at the heart of the film. Fortunately, the cast offers up several great performances (Tommy Davidson, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mister Paul Mooney, and a cameo from the always welcome Susan Batson, as cutting here as she is in Lee’s vastly underrated Girl 6) and their devotion to the material is palpable.

What Bamboozled does is make the viewer gauge him or herself against the material being seen. There are images in this film (expertly shot in a jagged and perceptive manner by Ellen Kuras (Summer of Sam) in raw digital video) that are constructed of emotionally and socially violent icons, and the viewer is given no orientation other than whatever inherent sense of right and wrong you brought with you to the theatre. Walkouts abound, but so does a sensation truly unique when compared to most major releases: the feeling that every single person in the theatre is being made to think and evaluate what they are seeing. There is nothing even remotely escapist about the film, and by the end of the whole experience, I was weeping and emotionally destroyed.

Will you like it? How could anyone like the iconography of hate that the film dishes out, both barrels?

Should you see it? Absolutely.

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