By Richard von Busack
WE WON’T SEE a larger gap between ambition and results this year than Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s passionate yet terminally flawed study of racist entertainment. It’s heartbreaking, as only a really inspired, failed idea can be heartbreaking. Lee, who will be appearing at the next San Jose Cinequest, in February 2001, shows that he’s still a deeply important filmmaker in this canny yet confused film.
Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a numb black television writer. Hating his boss (Michael Rapaport, first-rate as a network creep), Delacroix comes up with an idea so rank that he believes it will be grounds for dismissal from his contract.
His lowball scheme is Mantan–The New Millennium Minstrel Show, starring two shiftless Negroes on an Alabama watermelon farm. Womack (Tommy Davidson) and Manray (dancer Savion Glover), a pair of homeless black street performers, are signed on to do the tap-dancing and grinning. Manray is renamed “Mantan” in honor of Mantan Moreland–the pop-eyed ’40s comedian best known for the phrase “Feets, do your stuff.” Womack gets his Sleep ‘n’ Eat handle from the stage name of Willie Best (1913-62), whose eye-bulging gimmick can be seen in the Humphrey Bogart movie High Sierra.
Mantan–The New Millennium Minstrel Show becomes a hit. There are protests, but some critics call the show “ironic.” Delacroix’s assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), drops out, too revolted to continue. Her brother (Mos Def), a hotheaded rap artist with a posse called the Mau Maus, looks for violent revenge.
In one offstage scene, Sloan recites the recipe for making burnt-cork blackface makeup as Manray and Womack get ready for their show. It’s a sort of torture sequence. The actors’ shame in donning this tarlike makeup skirts close to the cheap pathos of a clown hiding his sorrow under grease paint. Yet these scenes have the power Lee intended–all the power of this scrappy, infuriating director at his best.
Manray and Womack go from stardom to shuddering guilt, fast. So does Sloan. Somewhere, between the lines of this film, there’s been a romance between her and her boss. It seems impossible that a woman like Sloan would couple with the prissy Delacroix. Similarly, Sloan’s acceptance of Manray/Mantan’s blunt seduction later in the film seems far below her style. I take that back–I can’t really say it goes against her style, since I don’t know what her style is. I can’t tell what Delacroix’s style is, either. By the time the characters are being redeemed, we haven’t really met them yet.
IF YOU WANT a look at the sources of Bamboozled, go to Berkeley. Racist artifacts collected by Jan Faulkner are on display at the show Ethnic Notions, at the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park, through Nov. 12. Among the trinkets and toys and illustrations–of mammies, feral bare-bottomed babies, razor-wielding bucks and black dandies in gaudy waistcoats–is a dinner plate. The plate is a souvenir from the Coon-Chicken Inn fast-food chain of the 1930s.
Lee took the face on that plate as the source for the 60-foot-high backdrop of his Mantan show in Bamboozled. It’s a face we’d happily forget: a bald-headed, bellhop-capped gargoyle with yawning Firestone-lipped mouth and lacy, crinkled wink, perhaps over an empty eye socket.
If Mr. Coon-Chicken Inn doesn’t scare you off, stay at the Berkeley gallery to see the video of the 1986 documentary Ethnic Notions, from which the Berkeley exhibit gets its name. The late Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs gives a lesson in the history and context of different stereotypes that turn up again and again in popular arts and crafts, from Aunt Jemima to the badass cop. Riggs’ was the moderate version of this strayed history; Lee’s film is a yell of outrage.
In Bamboozled, Delacroix gets his own museum, a collection of Ethnic Notions to decorate his office. These items start to take on a life of their own. The racist toys in Delacroix’s office are all from Lee’s own collection.
One toy haunts Delacroix especially, a cast iron “Jolly Nigger” bank. Lee has said that he wrote the script for Bamboozled with the Jolly Nigger bank right beside him. He has also said that racist toys are the result of intense hatred–hatred that he can’t understand.
It can’t be that simple. If they were just hateful, these toys wouldn’t get under the skins, black or white, of the people who have collected them over the years. Lee obsesses over these pickaninny dolls, these caricatures with their gaping, skinned mouths, in the same way some of the old-school feminists obsessed over pornography. Where does the loathing end and the titillation begin?
When you feel, as Lee does, that racism is a secret that no one talks about, it must be an evil thrill to see it out in the open, made up with burnt cork and crimson lipstick.
WHY DOESN’T LEE get due acknowledgment as a new-tech filmmaker? Is it because reporters and editors are tired of the digital film story? Lee is using the low-fi technique to get around the financing hurdles that strangled him in the past.
Compare the enormous press that James Toback got for his puerile digital film Black and White to the relatively little buzz about Bamboozled. One possible reason for the disparity: Lee is resolutely cool to the press; the far less talented Toback knows how to make a film critic feel like a chum.
Lee shot Bamboozled on tape, except during the scenes of the Mantan show, which are photographed in rich, juicy, glossy color. They’re obviously his favorite scenes, for their immense shock value. Lee shows us what a minstrel show was like, makes us stay to watch the tap dancing and “there ain’t nobody here but us chickens” skit. It’s a history lesson, but Lee’s ardent for it, plumping it up with audience participation and computer animation.
Lee concludes Bamboozled with a montage of racist films from 1900 to 1950. This montage ought to be broadcast on the Oscars, like Chuck Workman’s montages of more respectable films. Still, in Lee’s, I thought I saw Fats Waller, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Ethel Waters, performers who don’t at all deserve association with balloon-lipped cartoons.
Writer Susie Bright once said something smart about women watching porn: that women were always good at making something useful out of whatever they were handed in life. Change “Women” to “African Americans” and you sum up black history in a sentence. Performers like Anderson and Waters transcended their stereotyping. And paying back stereotypes with violence is a cruel and preachy turn for Bamboozled to take.
Spike Lee is dour, misanthropic and disenfranchised, and he has a thirst for revenge. He has all of the makings of a great American satirist except for one all-important quality: he’s not a nihilist.
Lee tells us that Delacroix is a blinded soul whose confused ambitions made him betray his people. Wouldn’t it be simpler if he was just a greedy, selfish man? But Lee wouldn’t have that, because he has to prove that racism warped Delacroix.
A satirist must not trust in people’s better nature. He can’t believe that people–people of any color–can be mended. That’s why satire is a lesser art. What happened to Lee is what would happen to a white satirist bamboozled into believing that his act of cinematic revenge was going to advance the human race. Piousness overcame him.
Bamboozled (R; 135 min.), directed and written by Spike Lee, photographed by Ellen Kuras and starring Damon Wayans, Shavion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith and Michael Rapaport, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.