Criterion Prediction #179: Bamboozled, by Alexander Miller
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover, Michael Rapaport
Synopsis: Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) is an uptight, Harvard-educated TV producer who tries to use his influence to create positive programs featuring African-Americans. However, he’s at the mercy of his numbskulled boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Rapaport), a boisterous, (slightly) veiled racist who freely drops the n-word and claims he is more black than Delacroix because he’s married to a black woman and has embraced black culture. Fed up with his obnoxious boss and feeling pressure since his shows don’t go into production, Delacroix concocts a plan: Create a modern-day minstrel show, replete with performers in blackface spouting racist stereotypes and jokes.
Critique: Bamboozled didn’t fare well at the box office and received poor critical notices upon release, which is a shame because this might be one of Lee’s most audacious, daring, bold and angriest explorations into the theme that most prominently plays in his work, race. Lee’s taking cues from The Producers and Network but the guiding hand is recognizable as ever and the director’s touch couldn’t be more pronounced. Arriving at a time when Lee had just set the world on fire with Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever and Clockers, cinematically he had utilized every visual aesthetic, branched into documentaries and directing one-man/stand-up performances. With Bamboozled, he returns to raw, fist-pumping defiance but is cranking it up, leaving behind crisp cinematography and strong lighting, for muddy digital Mini SonyDV XV1000 cameras.
The scaled-back production model (the budget for the film came in at around $10,000,000) gives Bamboozled a guerilla/verite vibe, and the punchy content only bolsters this aggressive approach. Lee draws up some compelling characters. At the forefront, there’s Wayans as the twittish Delacroix. His accent feels intentionally nerdy. While he’s the brain behind this farcical and unbelievably racist concept, he’s a little frustrating. The show has a sort of Golem or Frankenstein’s monster effect on Delacroix. However, he doesn’t express much remorse as it takes on more mass appeal and his contentious attitude seems to grow not just for his bosses but for everyone except his series. He alienates his assistant (a moral center played by Smith) and pits his cast (
Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) against one another. Instead of a complicated and conflicted Howard Beale type, Delacroix comes off as kind of a dick. Aside from that, Rapaport is perfectly cast as the embodiment of the casually racist and obnoxious epitome of white-culture-slummers who try to fist-bump their way out of white guilt into the good graces of black culture. Smith is fascinating as Delacroix’s upstanding assistant, which leads to one of the film’s most interesting turns. She’s constantly furnishing Delacroix with keepsakes, trinkets, and other racist antiques from yesteryear as an unsubtle “fuck you” to her boss. By the end of the film, the racist paraphernalia of big lipped, Aunt Mammy/Uncle Remus-like cast iron figurines surround Delacroix’s office. It’s a haunting reminder of his ugly creation and also a cautious reminder of the ghost of racism and how it’s a lingering stench in our modern media.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: While I would have thought of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Clockers or School Daze, Bamboozled was recently hinted at in Criterion’s New Year’s Newsletter. And while it might simultaneously allude to Citizen Kane (the drawings are really clever), Bamboozled would be a good inclusion regardless and its incorporation would be a timely and relevant title for people to reexamine.