The King of Coonology

Spike Lee Mounts His Revenge on Black Hollywood

The latter is unfortunately true on this side of Bamboozled's wormhole. Davidson's pathos-driven performance as Sleep 'N Eat is the only one where the pain doesn't seem faked (though Wayans's pain in his role is all too apparent), perhaps the saddest virtuoso turn since the days of Bert Williams.

Bamboozled presumably satirizes the minstrel form itself, but in that aim Spike proves himself as Bamboozable as the next ringmaster. The loving, lush, lavish production values put into play for his New Millennium Minstrel Show dramatically outshimmer the drab, fluorescent mise-en-scène everywhere else in evidence. As features on video go, Bamboozled often makes Hoop Dreams seem posted up by Industrial Light and Magic if not drawn from van Gogh's palette. The New Millennium maybe didn't have to look so fly, but Spike is too much the showman to not immaculately dress his stage and his blacked-up minstrels with as much seductive surface beauty as possible, and some wickedly rhythmic digital animation thrown in for good measure. A graphic-intensive filmmaker to the core, Spike would be lying if he denied how much he loved staging those scenes. The race man in him crying no, no, no to Sambo's entreaties, the cineaste moaning yes, yes, yes, going cold-Molly-Bloom-up in this piece, the director's adoring eye proving, as always, a tough thing to hide behind the ramshackle bulwark of moral outrage and indignation. Spike also reveals himself, in the flick's many brilliant supporting performances, asides, sight gags, and documentary clips, to be one of our greatest coonologists, a thinker who delights in representing the found performance poetry of unmitigated coon behavior. On that score, Bamboozled is frequently more fun than a barrel of fratboys.

Let me begin this graf by saying I am about to give away the ending: Now certain critics, like the two Harlem sistas who departed the Magic Johnson Theater ahead of me, have taken offense that Glover's Mantan was targeted for assassination by the Mau Maus in the riveting Dance of Death sequence, and not Rapaport's loudmouth nigger-baiting TV producer.

illustration: Limbert Fabian

"It's stupid," they opined. "Why kill the actor and not the guy who made the show?" The answer requires that we turn to the Norman Jewison version of Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Story and offer that Spike does not hail from the Howard Rollins-as-Captain Davenport/Thurgood Marshall reform perspective, nor the Denzel Washington-as-Private Melvin Peterson/Mao Tse-Tung death-to-all-running-dogs mandate, but from the Adolph Caesar-as-Sergeant Waters/Stanley Crouch school of coon-slaughter: Having found accommodations in the master's guest house to his liking, as frankly we all do, he is still not above lynching the first unrepentant jigaboo he finds cakewalking across his lawn. For the record, Spike, like Crouch, has never really "gotten" hiphop, the most amoral, resourceful, and cannibalistic folk music in history, which explains why his skits about 40 ounces and "Timmy Hillnigger" seem flat and wildly passé viewed in the Versace and Cristal era, and less pointed than the "Tommy Field Nigger" pun I heard over three years ago, which more accurately ridicules how Tommy didn't have to advertise to the ghetto since the ghetto was gracious enough to raise him up by his bootstraps first. Lampooning Air Jordans would have more relevantly addressed the corporatized fashion-enslavement of African Americans and offshore Asians, but Rage Against the Machine Spike ain't.

A simpler answer to the aforementioned sistas' critique might be that Bamboozled is also a minstrel performance of sorts by its director and therefore shall not violate the rule of mainstream cinema that politically conscious Black men cannot be shown on-screen inflicting pain on white males—especially if they're the kind of white men who greenlight film budgets.

These issues aside, Bamboozled speaks existential volumes about the African American anxiety that neither good behavior nor bling-bling can free our minds from the ever present fear of being "profiled," riddled by a 41-bullet NYPD salute, taken out for a Jasper, Texas, joyride, or suffering a Nissan loan rejection.

Those real-life scenarios declare more eloquently than Spike ever could that no Black performance, no Black male show, be it on stage or in the boardroom, can remove open-hunting-season signs and the stain of the tar brush from around Nubian necks. As that wit Vernon Reid once observed, "We're the Men in Black 24-7," AmeriKKKa's favorite born suspects by many other names.

Bamboozled declares symbolic war on the notion of Black performance as an escape vehicle and as emblem of Black authenticity. As the success and street cred of Eminem has overnight demolished any blacker-than-black pretensions left in hiphop (if only because he's got mad flow and sounds sooo white), it's fascinating to see the Soulquarian Crew (the Roots, D'Angelo, Jill Scott, Bilal) arc Black performance back around to the sort of Pentecostal release, social commentary, and instrumental virtuosity which characterized post-Sly soul, funk, and Afrocentric fusion. Call it the new Black formalism, a bebop/P-funk-redux privileging of communal call-and-response over telegenic posturing—though Rebecca Walker's take on D'Angelo's buck-naked "How Does It Feel" video as the auction block revisited isn't easily dismissed.

Here at the start of the 21st century, Zen master Louis Armstrong's arch koan "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" is no closer to being a relic of the race's American experience than Steel Pulse's (via Exodus) "How can we sing in a strange land?" Bamboozled argues that we will keep on singing, testifying, and coonin' for accommodations in the master's house even if it kills us. And if merely performing Blackness won't save us? I hear KRS-ONE in the wings whispering, "Real bad boys move in silence," dead prez openly declaring armed revolution to be a bigger movement than hiphop, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement flying their Free the Land (not Fort Greene) banner, the Witness Project archiving police-brutality survivors, the Critical Resistance posse rallying to shut down the prison-construction industry. More blood and more dread yeah, the beats and the beatdowns shall go on, a luta continua someone will likely have to translate as the struggle continues, "I have come to wound the autumnal city," now somebody give the drummer some. . . .

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