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(2000) (Damon Wayans, Savion Glover) (R)

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Drama/Satire: Hoping to get fired, a black TV executive reinvents the old blackface, song and dance minstrel show only to witness, to his horror, it become a huge hit among viewers.
Pierre Delacroix (DAMON WAYANS) is an African-American TV executive for the Continental Network System who's been assigned by his white boss, Dunwitty (MICHAEL RAPAPORT), to come up with a groundbreaking TV program that will showcase black talent and draw back the millions of viewers who've been tuning out.

Due to Dunwitty's overbearing and self-proclaimed grasp on being black, Pierre decides to concoct the most offensive and racist show he can imagine, hoping to get himself fired in the process. As such, he reinvents the minstrel show and hires two local street performers, Manray (SAVION GLOVER) and Womack (TOMMY DAVIDSON), renames them Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat, and casts them in "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show."

Featuring black talent in traditional blackface and consisting of politically incorrect song and dance numbers and offensive, old-fashioned racist skits, the idea understandably insults Pierre's black assistant, Sloan Hopkins (JADA PINKETT-SMITH). Nevertheless, Dunwitty and the network executives love it, as does the live audience that - after being entertained by Honeycutt (THOMAS JEFFERSON BYRD), the show's warm-up man - quickly takes to the initially shocking sight of black men in blackface.

To Pierre's dismay, the show becomes a national hit, turning Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat into cultural icons. Not everyone is happy with the program, however, and Sloan's political activist/urban terrorist brother, Julius, a.k.a. Big Black Africa (MOS DEF), and his crew, the Mau Maus, decide to do something about the show. As they plot their action, Pierre must contend with the success of his creation and the impact that it has on his status and beliefs of being an African-American.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Everyone obviously has the right to support whatever causes or issues that are important to them, and can take whatever legal means of bringing them to the attention of legislators, the media and/or the public, as they deem appropriate or potentially successful. Yet, when they become overbearing and overzealous in doing so, they risk alienating those they're informing, preaching to, or trying to convert over to their way of thinking.

Such is the case with "Bamboozled," the latest film from writer/director Spike Lee, undeniably one of the cinema's most proficient provocateurs. No stranger to controversy and usually stirring it up with a great big spoon and near devilish glee, the gifted black filmmaker has nearly always used racial matters and material to fuel his films. "School Daze" dealt with class and color divisions at a black college, "Malcolm X" detailed the life of the civil rights activist and "Do the Right Thing" - Lee's best film -dealt with race relations on one hot and volatile summer day in the city.

In "Bamboozled" - named after the definition of the word but also a passage from Malcolm X ("You've been hoodwinked. You'd been had. You've been took. You've been led astray, led amok. You've been bamboozled") - Lee's target this time around is television and the world of entertainment in how both portray and have portrayed African-Americans over the years and employed them - or not -- behind the camera.

He obviously has some well-grounded points. No one will argue that blacks weren't portrayed with much respect in the early years of film or TV, or even that much of today's television programming - save for "The Cosby Show" back in the '80s - doesn't feature predominantly all black casts or realistically depict African-Americans, and still occasionally represents them as exaggerated caricatures.

His bigger gripe, it seems, is that there's a lack of black talent behind the camera, creating such shows. Thus, his protagonist in this film is such a person, a lone black TV executive who's so fed up with the system and white people thinking they're black that he decides to mock both by dredging up the most blatantly disrespectful and racist form of entertainment he can imagine - the minstrel show of days gone by. It, of course, becomes a hit among both black and white viewers.

Something of a combination of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (where the purposefully bad play "Springtime for Hitler" becomes an unexpected hit) and Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" (a satire on television and the outrageous efforts undertaken for ratings), Lee's film starts off rather well, is bizarre in a way that only satires can get away with, and certainly opens the floodgates for discussions and arguments about his points, claims and accusations.

Yet, as a moviegoing experience, the film is only half successful, and there are a variety of reasons for that. For starters, the film is simply too preachy. While some - including Lee - will probably argue that those who make such criticisms don't understand his point or his ways of imparting it, the filmmaker - who's never been accused of being too subtle - relentlessly drives home that point to such a degree that it will likely irritate or simply turn off many viewers.

It certainly doesn't take a brain surgeon or film critic to see and recognize Lee's message, and the first half of the film works rather well in portraying it in a mostly entertaining fashion. By dredging up the minstrel show and having black performers performing in burnt cork blackface, the film intends to show how bad the past was and how we might not yet have entirely escaped from it. That's all fine and good, and Lee's obviously done his homework and research on the matter.

When his message becomes too conspicuous and redundant, however, the impact of his point is lessened and becomes tedious instead of enlightening or further thought-provoking. Just like some sales people who don't recognize when they step over the bounds and go into an off-putting, overkill mode, Lee uses a pile driver rather than a mallet to hammer home his message.

The film's other problems involve its plot and characters. While the first half of the story works decently as it introduces the characters, the situation and the resurrection of the minstrel show, the second half completely falls apart. Beyond the progressively didactic material and the fact that such a show would never see the light of day, let alone become a ratings hit among all viewers, the plot becomes increasingly episodic, uneven and disjointed, and what should have been increasing momentum toward the decisive and telling conclusion is flat and decidedly less than involving. That ending is certainly the worst part of the film as it comes off as contrived and melodramatic, not to mention rather unbelievable.

Some of that's due to the fact that we don't really like or care about any of the characters. As portrayed in an odd and seemingly falsely pretentious way (purposeful or not) by Damon Wayans ("Bulletproof," "The Great White Hype"), the protagonist isn't interesting or magnetic enough to lead the viewer through the story. Since we're not allowed to sympathize with him before or after the success of his show, we simply don't care what fate might befall him or those whose lives he's changed.

The supporting players, including Jada Pinkett-Smith ("Woo," "The Nutty Professor") as his insulted assistant; Savion Glover ("Tap," TV's "Sesame Street") and Tommy Davidson ("Woo," "Booty Call") as his performers who prostitute themselves for money; and Mos Def (the hip-hop artist turned actor) as a radical/terrorist, are all victims of the same, underdeveloped problem. While Michael Rapaport ("Men of Honor," "Small Time Crooks") gets the film's funniest bits as a whiter than white TV executive who thinks he's black, he's not around enough - or later developed to any appreciable degree - to make much of a difference.

This isn't the first piece of entertainment to tackle such issues. Films such as Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle" and the Wayans brothers "In Living Color" previously brought such matters to light. Yet, since they were comedies, perhaps Lee felt that they weren't taken as seriously as they might in a dramatic package. Nevertheless, while the filmmaker makes various, compelling points throughout this film, his relentless approach at doing so - including a concluding montage of racist images from the world of entertainment over the years - decidedly dulls what could have been razor sharp and clever satire.

Only the dimmest or most racist of viewers won't see or get his point. Since such moviegoers aren't likely to see this picture anyway, the full frontal and assaultive manner that Lee deploys is unnecessary and ruins what could have been a subtler, and thus effective, way of delivering his message. Films can simultaneously contain social messages and still be entertaining -- in a "spoonful of sugar makes the medicine gone down" type of way -- but here the former has too much of that medicinal aftertaste for most viewers' palates. Interesting and certainly thought-provoking but not as good as it might have been, "Bamboozled" rates as a 5 out 10.

Reviewed September 21, 2000 / Posted October 20, 2000

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