Bamboozle: 1. to trick or deceive somebody through misleading statements or falsehoods. 2. to make somebody confused.
Resorting to dictionary definitions to jump-start a work is usually a desperate technique employed in freshman composition. Nevertheless, Spike Lee’s latest comedy “Bamboozled” starts off by defining the meanings of satire.
That clunky start is quickly forgiven once the bamboozling begins at least, forgiveness lasts about halfway through the film. The bamboozler is Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated television writer with never-to-see-prime-time shows like “Brown Nose Jones” under his belt. His foul-mouthed wannabe homeboy boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), wants more “colored people” programming and dismisses protests with a blacker-than-thou attitude. “I’ve got a black wife and two biracial kids,” he says. “I don’t give a damn what that (expletive) Spike Lee says.”
Delacroix decides to out-Dunwitty his boss with a show so outrageously black, the actors need blackface. So Delacroix trumpets “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” starring Mantan and his sidekick Sleep ‘N Eat (shades of Stepin Fetchit). Of course, to his horror and pleasure, it gets picked up as a midseason replacement. Blackface becomes a national rage in every sense of the word.
The stars of the variety show are literally pulled off the streets: fast-talking Womack (Tommy Davidson) and tap-dancing Manray (Savion Glover). Homeless and desperate, they don’t ask many questions. Manray readily agrees to change his name to Mantan (after 1940s actor Mantan Moreland, best known as the chauffeur in the Charlie Chan movies). “As long as I’m hoofing and I’m getting some loot,” he says, “I’m cool.”
“Bamboozled” pulls off some keenly comic scenes, such as the meeting of white writers (and the token Asian women) who giddily admit that their black experience amounts to watching “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times,” but that won’t stop them from doing the job.
Nor does it spare the defenders of the cause. Delacroix is ably assisted by Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), but she’s the ignored voice of reason. Then there’s her rapper brother Julius, who rebels by living outside the law and rejecting his “slave name” for “Big Black Africa.”
More than halfway through the movie, though, the film takes a sudden mood shift when everyone has to deal with the backlash of fame: national protests, bloated egos and personality clashes. In a way, the movie’s grim downturn parallels the eroding degradation of black talent repeatedly playing to white prejudices. The spoof can’t go on, Lee seems to be saying, or else blacks risk cultural suicide.
Then again, this shift also smacks of ham-fisted impatience which makes the film stumble. It doesn’t help that the characters are drawn with broad strokes, especially Delacroix. His exaggerated Gallic pseudonym and peculiar stiffness both works and dissatisfies. It works as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, but dissatisfies by sacrificing satire for burlesque. He may be the puppet of his own minstrel-making, but his artificiality is a bit too false when everyone else around him tries to sound authentic. The loose-limbed Glover (“Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk”) manages to transcend his “I just want to dance” heedlessness with riveting footwork, however, while Pinkett-Smith is the most interesting to watch.
Perhaps one of the most powerful and subtle moments in the movie is the demeaning ritual of applying blackface. The application and the tear that streaks Womack’s blackface when his humiliation finally rises to the surface echo scenes from “Ethnic Notions,” the 1986 documentary by the late Marlon Riggs. So does the barrage of clips from cartoons, television and film that parades an unrelenting history of stereotypes.
The documentary-like feel of “Bamboozled” arises partly from the use of digital video, which imparts a grainy television look, and partly from Lee’s pleasure in disrupting the flow of cinematic narration.
In a recent interview, Lee says he defined satire for the critics, but it ends up showing distrust for the audience. Too bad the message tends to be a basic discourse in Black Media Studies 101, but at least Lee does bring up a past that everyone, race notwithstanding, ignores at his or her peril.