Spike Lee’s Bamboozled was a box office bomb on its release, Richard Luck says this is definitely the right moment for a reappraisal.
In the wake of his long-overdue Oscar win for the BlacKkKlansman screenplay and the success of his recent Netflix outing Da 5 Bloods, it’s easy to forget that Spike Lee hasn’t always been in vogue. In the late 1990s, the much-feted director of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991) was experiencing something of creative slump.
Perhaps exhausted after finally bringing his epic Malcolm X (1992) to the big screen, Lee’s movies were either ill-conceived – phone sex comedy Girl 6 (1996) – underappreciated – his stunning adaptation of the novel Clockers (1995) – or misunderstood.
Always a ballsy filmmaker, Spike’s determination to make movies about the Million Man March (1996’s Get on the Bus) and David Berkowitz’s 1970s New York murder spree (1999’s Summer of Sam) ought to have been rewarded with more than just lukewarm reviews and public outcry.
A die-hard Knicks fan who’s enjoyed a successful commercial relationship with Michael Jordan, it must also have broken Lee’s heart when his 1998 basketball movie He Got Game fouled out at the box office.
No matter the indifference, Spike Lee kept on working. Indeed, as synonymous as he’s become with controversy, the writer-director-producer deserves far more recognition for his work ethic.
In addition to shooting six feature between Malcolm X and the new millennium, the latter half of the 1990s saw him create the Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls (1997), produce his cousin Malcolm’s rom-com The Best Man (1999) and shoot any number of music videos and commercials.
Come the year 1999, Lee’s willingness to try new things saw him make the stand-up concert movie The Original Kings of Comedy. Featuring Cedric The Entertainer and Bernie Mac, the picture was quite the financial success. The same couldn’t be said of the other film Lee made that year.
Twenty years on, however, The Original Kings of Comedy feels like a relic from a more innocent age. On the other hand, Bamboozled feels so relevant, you could be forgiven for thinking Spike Lee had cooked it up during lockdown.
Written, produced and directed by Spike, Bamboozled kicks off with the Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of satire. Its intentions clear, the film proceeds to tell the story of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated television producer who’s having a tough time getting his work to air.
Arguably too smart for the job he’s been assigned to, Delacroix hits upon a scheme similar to the one Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder conjure up in The Producers. For while quitting will see the network sue Pierre, things will be very different if he can get the station to fire him. With this in mind, he approaches his boss with the most outlandish concept imaginable, a modern-day minstrel show.
A tasteless notion made more tasteless still by Delacrox’s insistence that those wearing blackface ought themselves to be black, Pierre is confident he’ll be free of the station in next to no time.
However, he’s reckoned without Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), the station chief who seems to think his black wife and mixed-race kids give him licence to crack every and any racist joke.
Dunwitty hears Pierre’s pitch for Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show and green lights the project on the spot. Pierre and his principled PA Sloane Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) must now hope that their pilot episode upsets as many people as it ought to do…
Those who have seen the aforementioned Mel Brooks masterpiece will have a good idea of what happens next. However, pretty much everything else about Bamboozled is far from predictable. For example, who could’ve foreseen that Tonight Show house band The Roots would show-up portraying the Mantan house band, The Alabama Porch Monkeys? Or that Sloane’s brother Julius (Yasiin Bey, aka the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and his militant rap band The Mau-Maus would so take against Pierre’s show that they kidnap one of its stars?
Speaking of stars, Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are quite excellent as Manray and Womack, the homeless street performers Delacroix hires to star in his show. Reborn as Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, the pair revel in their initial success, only for the nature of the show and the nature of showbusiness to sour their act and their friendship.
The price of fame, the worth of a man’s soul, the stain of racism upon America’s past and present – Bamboozled is a message movie with so much to say, it’s remarkable that Hollywood should have invested in it.
Truth be told, New Line Pictures didn’t invest much into Bamboozled. With just $10 million to work with, Lee had to call in plenty of favours to bring his vision to the screen. In addition to Wayans, Pinkett Smith and Rapaport agreeing to work for a fraction of their usual asking place, Lee also called on Mira Sorvino and Alec Baldwin to cameo as themselves. Come the day of the shoot, Baldwin slept through his alarm, leaving a panicked Lee to ring around to see what other name actors were in New York and ready to work. A bleary-eyed Matthew Modine arrived on the set shortly thereafter.
Lee was also helped out by his willingness to embrace new technology. In opting to shoot Bamboozled on 15 Sony digital cameras using Mini DV digital video, the director not only saved himself a fortune on film stock but was also able to shoot each scene simultaneously from multiple positions, so cutting out the need for countless camera set-ups. Had he employed more traditional means, it might have taken Lee 90+ days to shoot Bamboozled. Instead, he had the film in the can within six weeks.
Shot in the autumn of 1999, it opened in America a year later. In promoting his film, Lee was quick to site Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd as a key influence – he enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the writer Budd Schulberg – while also tipping his Kangol to The Producers and Sidney Lumet’s Network.
As for the purpose of his film, Lee told PBS’s Charlie Rose that “[Bamboozled]’s about the history of Hollywood and television’s misrepresentations of people of colour.
“It shows that those images [of minstrelsy] affect everybody and they’re still with us. And I think it also shows that nowadays in the 21st century, you don’t actually have to wear blackface to still be in a minstrel act.”
In fleshing out this last point, Lee remarked: “There are a lot of TV programmes that are modern-day minstrel shows. I think some forms of the genre gangsta rap… if you look at some of those videos, that’s a form of modern-day minstrel show.”
Not unsurprisingly, these comments weren’t terribly well received. Jamie Foxx went so far as to say: “With the most respect I can give him, I think Spike needs to back off a little. He’s getting to the point where nobody cares because he talks about [race] so much, that now he’s just become the angry black man.”
Lee responded by saying that Foxx’s words were themselves a response to Lee’s comments about modern-day minstrelsy. “I think he took it personal.”
Hurt feelings couldn’t account for the savage reviews Bamboozled received. Flick through the clippings and you’ll find repeated use of terms like “heavy-handed”, “unsubtle” and “unfocused”. Add this coverage to the disappointment cinemagoers experienced when they discovered Bamboozled wasn’t your typical Damon Wayans comedy and it was the sorry truth that, by the time the film opened in the UK in the April of 2001, it had long since vanished from American movie theatres.
And that, you could be forgiven for thinking, might have been the end of that.
However, just as the issues of blackface and modern-day minstrelsy have refused to go away, so Bamboozled has continued to occupy a place in the popular imagination. A picture that lost upwards of $7 million at the box office slowly developed a priceless cult following.
Look at any list of ‘the greatest movies you’ve never seen’ and you can be sure Bamboozled will be pretty near the top. And this year, Lee’s movie was granted the ultimate in art house recognition, admittance to the prestigious Criterion DVD/Blu-ray Collection.
Alas, there’s not getting away from the fact that Bamboozled’s enhanced reputation is at least in part linked to the baffling fact that blackface is still a part of modern-day life – streaming services have recently ditched blackface episodes of Scrubs, 30 Rock and Little Britain. Oh, and if you’re wondering what Lee’s position is on people ‘blacking up’ for Halloween, it’s unequivocal – “NO!! NO!! NO!! NO!! NO!!”
As for how Bamboozed stands up, it’s a measure of its quality that its actually enhanced by its flaws. In transferring the digital footage to film, Lee wound up with an extraordinarily ugly-looking film. But what else should a film about blackface be but unspeakably ugly? (The Mantan footage, on the other hand, is shot on film and is beautiful and hideous in equal measure.) Bamboozled is an ugly-sounding film, too, peppered with f-bombs and n-words which seem legitimate given the subject at hand.
More contentious – and something of a constant throughout the director’s earlier films – is Lee’s depiction of Jewish characters. Sure, Michael Rapaport’s exec bares more than a passing resemblance to Lee’s long-time foe Quentin Tarantino, but he also brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and any number of Jewish entertainment power brokers. This using of one stereotype to criticise the stereotyping of others is quite the thing in 2020 – type ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘Nick Cannon’ into Google and you’re in for quite the wild ride.
Such behaviour tells us a lot about America, mind you. After all, the US is a nation convinced that the answer to its gun problem is more guns. By this fractured logic, it stands to reason that the answer to racism is more racism.
And from the ridiculous to the sublime, for while much about Bamboozled is excellent – the Terence Blanchard score, the supporting performances of Pinkett Smith and Paul Mooney, Davidson and Glover’s resistibly irresistible double-act – it’s the film’s final three-and-a-half minutes that elevate it to something approaching greatness.
Compiled by Lee and researcher Judy Aley, Bamboozled concludes with a potted history of blackface on film. We see white actors made up as slaves in DW Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation; we watch Judy Garland, Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor performing minstrel standards in full costume; we endure excerpts from classics like Duel in the Sun and Gone with the Wind, showing stereotyped portrayals of black characters; and we watch clip after clip from cartoons and children’s film TV series featuring – as Lee described them to Charlie Rose – “watermelon-smiling picaninnies”.
It’s a sequence Spike Lee considers his most powerful piece of film-making. That it hasn’t proven to be the last word on blackface is truly bamboozling.