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Bamboozled may prove to be Lee's most controversial, least commercial film. It's also a seriously schizophrenic work made up of two incompatible movies. Onea terrifying nightmare in which the confusion between identity and stereotype leads to martyrdom and murderis affecting but underdeveloped, its potential undercut by the more dominant film, a justified but overly reductive attack on the television industry for its degrading representations of African Americans and on the audience that swallows the racist brew and begs for more.
Lee has never made a secret of his anger toward In Living Color. In part, Bamboozled is an act of revenge on the show and on one of its creators and stars, Damon Wayans, who's made to pay for his success in more ways than one. Lee has done Wayans no favors by casting him as Bamboozled's snobbish, confused, and cowardly protagonist, Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated television writer. Pressured by his white boss (Michael Rapaport), whose blacked-up pose he despises, to write a cutting-edge series, Delacroix finds his inspiration in Amos 'n' Andy and The Jeffersons. His program, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, set in a watermelon patch and starring "two real coons," Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat, is so tauntingly racist that he expects to be fired for insubordination. Instead, the show is a huge hit. Delacroix pockets his check, but his repressed rage and guilt drive him over the edge.
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Wayans hasn't a clue how to play a character as cerebral and alienated from himself as Delacroix, and Lee gives him no help. Wayans's performance is so one-dimensional, stiff, and monotonous that it could hurt his career. It also nearly destroys the movie. As his assistant, Jada Pinkett-Smith is burdened with an unlikely character arc; she begins as the voice of moderation and ends as a combination of Cassandra and Antigone. It's a punishing role, though not as humiliating as that of Verna (Gillian Iliana Waters), the Jewish publicist (a female version of the music promoters in Mo' Better Blues) who only exists so Lee can take some anti-Semitic potshots.
If Bamboozled's primary story line is clumsy and badly acted, the subplot involving Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), homeless street performers who become overnight sensations when Delacroix casts them as Mantan and Sleep 'N Eat, is extremely moving and filled with possibilities. The movie comes to life in the backstage scenes, where they look at themselves in the mirror as they coat their faces with cork, paint their lips fire-engine red, and try to swallow their dismay at what they have to do to earn a living. Mantan's stardom enrages the Mau Maus, gangsta rappers with stereotypes of their own to account for. Eventually, the Mau Maus (whose members include Mos Def and Canibus) hijack the movie and turn it into a tragedy in cyberspace or maybe inside someone's psyche. Narrative consistency is not Lee's strong suit.
On the other hand, iconography is. Lee is unparalleled among American directors in his talent for seizing upon hot, subversive images and having the guts to put them on the screen. The black collectibles that line Delacroix's shelves, the montage of Hollywood classics in which racist stereotypes were taken for granted, and, most of all, the minstrel show itself make Bamboozled a scary movie indeed. For the performersManray, Womack, Junebug (Paul Mooney), and Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), whose "niggers is a beautiful thing" routine boggles the mindthe minstrel show is an exorcism, and their discovery that the studio audience views it as mere entertainment is the first step in their coming to consciousness.
Bamboozled itself has the feel of an exorcism. Lee, whose own hands aren't completely clean (what about the booty call in He Got Game?), gets the demons out in the open. He isn't always in control, he doesn't think through the contradictions, but he reminds you that movies have power, that they matter, and for a few brilliant moments, Bamboozled matters more than any other American movie this year.
At this year's Gotham awards, Do the Right Thing, still Lee's most fully realized work, was honored as a film classic. The Gothams, the Independent Feature Project's big fundraiser, takes place the same week as the IFP's other high-profile event, the Independent Feature Film Market. Although the Gothams celebrate the entire New York film community, the IFP uses the occasion to give sponsored cash prizes to indie filmmakers (this year's winners were Karyn Kusama for Girlfight and Aiyana Elliott for The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack); while the Breakthrough Actor Award (won this year by Girlfight star Michelle Rodriguez) carries no money, it adds a bit of weight to a résumé.