Even at his most appalling, deplorable, déclassé, Spike Lee is nothing less than inspirational, phenomenal, our mediaphrenic mother of agents provocateurs, a muckraking national treasure. Bamboozled is hands down Spike’s most complicated race-stew. True to form, it has little to say about human relations outside of that quagmire. A central paradox of Spike’s films is that for all their psychological hollowness, they contain a lost ‘n’ found storehouse of American racial baggage, a veritable Xanadu of the attitudinizing that makes the race thing so definitive of the American id.
Problematic but bountiful, Bamboozled is hardly Spike’s worst—that honor being reserved for the unforgettable Girl 6. Bad form in a Spike movie doesn’t just refer to aesthetic breaches, but a feeling of “Damn, that ninja slimed me again!” (cf. the gratuitous orgy scenes in He Got Game and Summer of Sam). Girl 6 managed the astounding feat of being prudish, prurient, and dull, and served his umpteenth revision of Irene Cara’s fall from grace in Fame—for Spike, female sexuality is just a step away from original sin, a gateway to humiliation, degradation, and expulsion from the garden. Accusing Spike of hating women would be wrong; like many a man he has a near hysterical need to distance himself from female vulnerability—the flimsy binary veil of sexual reputation (madonna/whore) proving an especially inviting license to ill. In Bamboozled, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Sloan must not only suffer being identified as a corporate whore by a shameless tap-dancing coon but assume a hangdog Scarlet Letter expression and have no comeback. Woman you nigger of the world indeed.
If Spike’s films are about one thing, it is the self-hate and defensive posturing that race hate has produced in Americans Black and white, the subrational stuff no one else in the mainstream even wants to touch. Spike’s work also demonstrates that American racial identity is less a thing to be contemplated than performed—not to mention paraded, primped, politicked, and prostituted, as loudly and wrongly as possible in civic space.
Given his avowed love for musicals (seen in the soundstage artificiality of even his grittiest location shooting), Bamboozled appears an inevitable addition to the Spike corpus. Minstrelsy and Black vaudeville are the primal sites for both American musical theater and the visual vocabulary of racial stereotyping. Spike was destined to one day explore the link between minstrel shows and musicals—how they are constructed and romanticized in our popular culture. Though professedly a satire about contemporary Black sitcoms, Bamboozled is far too overreaching with its signifyin’ on all comers for that declaration to hold water—no matter how many times Spike fields the asinine question of whether blacking up could come back on the UPN.
As Ted Gioia’s crazed apologia for Al Jolson (and by inference Ted Danson and those tar-brushed Queens firefighters and their cop buddy caught out there two years ago) in a recent Sunday Times Arts & Leisure piece showed, a taste for the corkgrease still whets some appetites. Enough to invoke dribble on the order of “Jolson continued to use burnt-cork makeup, perhaps not through any desire to degrade blacks, but simply to enhance the theatrical qualities of his performances.” When Gioia lives in an America where some brilliant African American cantor can be forgiven for his swastika face or that uproarious Black comic surgically altered to resemble O.J. gets laughs for his endearing punch line “Don’t make me have to cut you,” that’ll be the day Jolson’s talent is allowed to outshine his ‘shine cosmetics. Historian Gioia dehistoricizes Jolson’s coon mask, conveniently forgetting that the slang term for Southern segregation laws, Jim Crow, derived from the central slave figure in postbellum minstrel shows. Blackface is the slaveholder’s gaze made grotesquely darkened flesh, a golemlike emblem of the deeply held desire to keep the nigra alienated and never able to satiate what Richard Wright identified as their American hunger. The NAACP protest against the Confederate flag is entertaining to the degree that it fuels cracker agitation, but hardly an emotional rallying point for most African Americans. Unfurl a white man in blackface if you want to see some bloodshed and tears.
Bamboozled covertly evades the visual offense of depicting white minstrelsy dead-on. This it achieves by having its real minstrel act occur during Michael Rapaport’s high-octane performance as the blacker-than-thou network wigger who will demean and emasculate and steal ideas from Damon Wayans’s tight-assed, Harvard-trained Oreo and alleged writer-producer, Pierre Delacroix. Interestingly enough, the ham-fisted Bamboozled contains virtually no obvious critique of chitlin circuit television; hardly odd since Spike just made The Original Kings of Comedy with the cream of Black comics in television today. The real targets of this satire aren’t to be found in the programmers of colored pablum but in the larger world of Black celebrity, a fact evident in the casting of the film itself.
Bamboozled is pointedly and blatantly Spike’s Revenge on Black Hollywood, hiphop, and many other Black entertainment success stories of his generation—a Godfather-like decimation of the competitive field. This begins with the Wayans family, who Spike has probably never forgiven for having Tommy Davidson (Bamboozled‘s Sleep ‘N Eat) skewer him in the In Living Color skit about Spike’s Joint, where patrons are hustled to purchase their Mo’ Betta Butter and Malcolm Ex-Lax, and copies of School Daze can’t be given away. Now that was some Black TV satire for your ass. As was Spike’s Jeffersons skit in Crooklyn. Bamboozled is set in a kind of alternative universe of Black showbiz: In this one, the Roots are known as the Alabama Porch Monkeys and Mos Def isn’t our Mos Def who spat at an invitation to audition for The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer but Big Blak African, a fame-hungry, pro-Black militant poseur and 40-ounce addict. Jada Pinkett Smith must mount Homey the Clown in order to mount her career ladder, and slick, sly, and wicked Paul Mooney is Homey’s drunken, washed-up daddy. (There is an obvious essay to be written about the oedipal complex running through Spike’s films, up-front in Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, and the unmade The Messenger; a less frontal exposé of his closet obsession with Black middle-class dysfunction might also be in order.) This is a world where Savion Glover never tap-danced his way to fame and fortune in two Broadway shows, Ving Rhames and Cuba Gooding Jr. prove unable to stifle their inner coons while accepting their Token Negro Actor awards, and the overqualified Tommy Davidson must play second fiddle to a homeless tap-dance kid to work at all.
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.
“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. . . .