Never bashful and without a penchant for controversy, Lee’s first contribution to the new millennium is more like a history lesson just to remind the world how afflicted we really are. Or in layman’s terms how utterly obscene and distasteful the majority had been for so long, only to go one step further and challenge the notion that we’re really not that much different today after all. An unavoidable and incredibly relevant truth is that for centuries even the land of the free discriminated and oppressed those who have a darker complexion, and even after the most heinous institution in the history of the universe was abolished, the people were sure to let the egregious desecration of an entire race live on. The foulest form of propaganda, the history of the minstrel show is a vivid reflection of how unapologetically shameful the culture was, as blatant disrespect became such a tradition that it was customary for it to be broadcast all over your TV. As time went by and certain progress ensued, the Civil Rights movement was thought to have hopefully changed the world, but perhaps only a fool could be that naive. The age old question is whether prejudice behavior is taught or ingrained, and it’s my belief that a certain credence to the latter is what Lee explores in this film, creating a satire of what a minstrel show would look like in the year 2000.
Connecting the important theme of deep-rooted racism with a comical theme inspired by Mel Brook’s Producers, Lee puts together an abstract work of art that was sure to go over the heads of most. Damon Wayans stars in his finest role as Pierre Delacroix, an ‘uptight’ educated black man who is a screenwriter subjected to the ignorance of his boss; an appropriately ironic caricature of the ‘white man’ played by Michael Rapaport. As Wayans is determined to write material that uplifts black culture and represents black characters in a positive light, Rapaport is just as resolute on turning him down suggesting that such positive material isn’t marketable thus needs to be edited to include... (fill in blanks with a variety of inflammatory statements and racial epithets); not a far fetched ideology when looking at the history of cinema while appealing to a certain audience. Unable to breach his contract yet outraged that his talents have been diminished to maintaining systemic racism, Wayans decides to go above and beyond the pale by creating a modern day minstrel show, believing that such a monstrosity would sabotage the network and ultimately leave him fired.
But of course it doesn’t, and the show is a HIT! Led by two street performers who were desperate for a break (Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover), the show is a reinforcement of all the negative stereotypes that were celebrated throughout the media in the 20th century. Davidson plays his part as “Sleep ‘n Eat” who is more or less the sidekick to Glover’s “Mantan,” both of whom are willing to tap dance into the hearts of White America in order to live a more successful and comfortable life. Yet as the show continues to flourish that level of comfort begins to dissipate for some, as an awareness of just how destructive the material is begins to divide the cast. Yet one person undeterred is Wayans himself, who begins to lose himself in the newfound fame, much to the chagrin of his assistant and confidant played by Jada Pinkett Smith. Ultimately Davidson quits, Smith is fired, and Glover is left vulnerable to further exploitation until he finally has enough. In a climactic scene Glover takes the stage without his ‘black face’ makeup, much to the astonishment of the in-studio audience who are all wearing ‘black face’ themselves as if the skin color were a costume. It’s crucial to note that Glover still tries to perform but the absence of the makeup is a deal breaker for Rapaport and the audience, and he is subsequently fired leading to the death of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.
The film goes somewhat left from there as Glover is kidnapped by a fringe group (led by Mos Def and The Roots) who get carried away by their condemnation of the show and publicly execute him while he dances his final number. Smith then returns to blame Wayans for the murder and approaches him at gunpoint for ruining the lives of so many while setting the race back another hundred years. A struggle ensues and Wayans is accidently shot, yet as he lays in his own blood he alters the crime scene to make the wound look self inflicted, perhaps indicating it’s a fate that he ultimately deserved. The final scene is a long montage of actual clips from previous minstrel shows, as well as other demeaning depictions of black culture that has permeated throughout Hollywood since its inception, an exclamation point and a heavy dose of perspective for anyone who ever wonders why Lee made this film.
It’s no surprise to me that this film was panned by critics and was a box office bomb, it was simply a story that most people didn’t want to hear, which is precisely why it remains so significant to this day. While it’s fair to appreciate the message and dislike the film, I’d venture to say that in this case it’s more complex than that, considering how profound and rare that message is. With that in mind while I do believe the performances were excellent and the writing was top of the line, the simple motivation to make the film is what reigns supreme, and I can’t think of any other director who could have done it better. As far as it being heavy handed and unrealistic for a modern society, I’d caution those critics to take a closer look at what’s celebrated today, as it’s even been said that the academy itself only rewards black actors for certain ‘types of roles’ and not others. Or turn on the radio and what do you hear, it’s often a black artist entertaining a white audience, and most times the message is not exactly favorable to the culture that it represents. Yet if you ask the program director why there’s not better representation or at least some kind of balance, the answer is always in regards to the simple matters of supply and demand and dollars and cents. I suppose I’ll end this therefore by saying it’s very telling what the majority finds provocative, humorous, and desirable, and for that reason it’s no surprise that when Bamboozled hit theatres they left their wallets home that day.