Original Sins of Comedy

More famous than Amos: Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover in <i>Bamboozled</i>

More famous than Amos: Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover in Bamboozled

Spike Lee's Bamboozled would be a daring movie no matter the year, but its timing at the tail end of 2000 is impeccable. Beginning as an outrageously satirical, piss-your-pants-funny assault on corporate opportunism and viewer complicity in the peddling of racist humor, the film comes at a moment in pop history when the media's desperation for spectators has never seemed more profound. As Lee's TV-writer protagonist puts it in the first scene: "Our valued audience has dramatically eroded...Like rats fleeing from a sinking ship, people have been tuning out by the millions." So, too, box-office receipts are down, theater chains have been filing Chapter 11 in droves, and even this latest Spike Lee joint--shot for cheap on digital video--has had trouble finding screens at local multiplexes. (After several postponed release dates, Bamboozled opened last Friday at three Twin Cities venues, with little advance notice.) Maybe ours is a postcritical culture as well: The distributor's abundant lack of confidence assumes that audiences aren't eager to entertain Lee's notion of our "new millennium" being no more enlightened than the last.

Conversely, in the world of the film itself, apathy and exploitation conspire to make a smash hit of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show--a blatantly offensive black variety series set in a watermelon patch and featuring a pair of shuckin' and jivin' African-American "porch monkeys," both wearing blackface. That this televised atrocity is the brainchild of a black, Ivy League-educated writer (Damon Wayans) typifies Lee's strategy of implicating African-American artists--including Wayans, co-creator of In Living Color--in the perpetuation of black stereotypes. At the same time, Wayans's emphatically enunciating Pierre Delacroix has his reasons for wanting to unleash Mantan on the masses. Subversively delivering a "real coon show" to his obnoxious, black culture-appropriating white boss (hilariously played by Michael Rapaport in the "wigga" spirit of Tarantino's "QT" from Girl 6--if not in the spirit of Tarantino himself), Delacroix intends the program to alert jaded audiences to the horrors of media racism. But when the show makes the covers of Essence and Vibe, and kids start donning blackface for Halloween, Delacroix realizes that the caricature has taken on a life of its own.

To a degree, this ironic outcome reflects the complex tug-of-war that has defined African-American humor throughout history. While the white-authored and -acted blackface minstrelsy of the late 1800s served to reinforce a sense of newly liberated blacks as wayward buffoons, the subsequent phenomenon of black performers further darkening their skin for minstrel shows attended by both black and white audiences allowed African Americans to re-appropriate the spectacle. In other words: To playact the white racist view of "blackness" is in some ways to liberate oneself from the sense of its being authentic, just as plantation-era black humor functioned as a survival technique by adopting the oppressor's degrading view of nonwhites in order to satirize it. In Bamboozled, the white-run TV network is clearly akin to the plantation. But to what degree does, say, In Living Color (or Mantan) effectively satirize the old stereotypes rather than recapitulate them?

Alas, after an amazingly provocative first hour, Bamboozled doesn't explore this black-comic territory so much as run roughshod over it. Part of the problem is that it's never clear what the audience sees in Mantan. On a stage configured to resemble a run-down slave shack, various Sambo and Jemima caricatures line up to sing and dance, actors Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) out-shuck Amos 'n' Andy as Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat--and the racially integrated audience inexplicably turns from gape-mouthed disbelief to uncontrollable laughter. Lee scholars may note that his reaction shots of the crowd are far less pointed here than in his gutbusting concert film The Original Kings of Comedy, wherein the impact of every third joke registers plainly on the faces of adoring Kings fans. In Bamboozled, obvious cuts to the studio's "applause" sign obscure the true nature of the audience's reaction.

As a longtime Lee admirer, I should also mention that this is the first time I find myself agreeing with the prevailing view that the director doesn't know how to end a movie. It's as it should be that Lee shifts gears (several, in fact) to reveal the violent effects of all the comedic madness upon the writer and his audience, but that can't justify the ungainly mix of gangsta gunplay and old film-noir-style misogyny that constitutes the bulk of Bamboozled's final reels. What the movie ends up doing to Jada Pinkett Smith's initially intelligent network-assistant character would fit better in Basic Instinct. And among the film's more unintended ironies is the fact that Lee, in his satiric attack on racial stereotypes, has seen fit to include a stereotype of a Jewish female publicist who gratingly advises Delacroix on how to evade his critics. Could this be a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Far from pointing the way out of its representational quagmire, Bamboozled comes close to becoming what it had originally attacked: an exploitative work of would-be entertainment.