More Trash by Spike Lee
directed by Spike Lee
Last year’s Spikathon, Summer of Sam, couldn’t resist exploiting the history of a real-life urban bogeyman (despite Lee’s frequent claims the movie wasn’t about "The Son of Sam"). Unfortunately, Lee aligned the serial killer’s sickness with the fears and degenerate prejudices of stock-figure Bronx Italian lowlifes. He got Jimmy Breslin to mouth the dubious final assessment, "a sick fuck." But Lee’s overall theme was: Son of Sam, the proverbial white devil, came home to roost. Prior to that He Got Game twisted sports fantasies with prison industry homilies and ghetto pathology, all loonily scored to Aaron Copland’s ersatz Americana.
Now, in Bamboozled, Lee offers equal-time defamation by castigating black showbiz folk as the epitome of self-hatred and selling out. Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard grad network executive buppie fed up with his white boss’ (Michael Rapaport) pandering tv programming. Delacroix plots revenge by devising another, worse, show of heinous racial stereotypes. He hires two street performers, Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), to sing and dance as the stars of Mantan, The New Millennium Minstrel Show. Lee’s perspective (self-defined as "satire" and "irony") is as behind the times as the 70s-set Summer of Sam’s, yet Bamboozled has neither the rancid nostalgia factor nor the current pop mood in its favor. Though contemporary, Bamboozled relies on an ossified form of Afrocentricity. It goes back to late-80s skepticism about black celebrity and showbiz ascension. Black Urban Professionalism is critiqued (hell, it’s exercised about) as if it were an unprecedented social phenomenon. Because we’re past all that now, Bamboozled at first feels confounding. Despite many recent examples of well-remunerated race men and women–from Stanley Crouch to Lauryn Hill, Terry McMillan to Russell Simmons–Lee has no other regard for public figures’ personal responsibility, racial authenticity or inauthenticity except to judge it as blackface minstrelsy. It makes for a striking poster (Lee’s ad campaigns are always better than his movies) but the minstrelsy idea–parodying the ways in which showbiz hierarchies parallel social ones–muddles the film’s argument.
Look past the flip-flopping characterizations of people speaking nonsense-wisdom-nonsense (Puddin’head Lee invokes Mark Twain to justify anything he thinks might be risible or caustic) and Bamboozled is just hubristic. Lee’s willingness to disparage anything black celebrities do grew out of the license and arrogance of a group of New York-based black writers and performers newly acquired during hiphop’s advent. (Remember those 80s Village Voice pieces discrediting Michael Jackson, Wynton Marsalis, then celebrating Lee?) In Bamboozled Spike similarly targets the flipside of such black pop authority–variety shows and low-brow sitcoms. He lambastes along the showbiz spectrum from Wu-Tang Clan to Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover to Oprah Winfrey, Jimmie "J.J." Walker to Quentin Tarantino because they don’t present blackness his way. But you could make a strong argument that no single mediamaker in the past decade has fostered more black stereotypes than Lee.
It’s mighty funny that Lee, an industry-sponsored veteran (not an independent filmmaker since 1986), chooses to cast the "minstrel" aspersion upon those he presumes are enslaved to whites. With its helter-skelter slurs and gripes, Bamboozled resembles a padded cell with which Hollywood has provided Lee to bounce off walls. If he had an honest or up-to-date approach to the problem of self-abasement and media corruption–if Lee simply knew the frustration of trying to get a project approved–he wouldn’t resort to the age-old calumny of actual blackface routines and minstrel shows. Put in the confounding position of being Hollywood’s bad boy, encouraged (through guilt or prestige) to make any mess he pleases, Lee can’t quite sort out what appalls him about show business. So Delacroix’s predictable tv genres, the desperation of Manray and Womack to do anything to get attention, win approval, buy those clothes, pay that mortgage are all coarsely derided.
An earlier artifact like Michael Schultz’s 1991 Livin’ Large presented the same themes more succinctly, basing its buppie crisis on The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lee has the Oliver Stone bug without Stone’s visionary, political precision, so he stirs a postmodern mishmash. Delacroix’s travesty-turned-unexpected-hit gimmick is taken from Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968); the insider-sabotage plot is stolen from Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969); and bitter sanctimony about corporate television apes Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976). Bamboozled could have been as simple, and effective, as any of those films. But Lee’s scattershot approach, and his confusion about the meaning of blackface routines and blackface metaphors, make no advance.
By condemning everything in the pop constellation, Lee glosses the dubious motives of showbiz marketers and executives. Simply questioning the loyalties of Delacroix’s MBA class doesn’t empathize or explain the upwardly mobile cheating themselves. We can’t grasp Delacroix’s go-getter ambivalence. My guess is, Delacroix’s dilemma is the one personal vexation Lee can’t come to grips with: buppie guilt. That’s why Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Girl 6 have such erratic narratives; it also explains the ethical duplicity of Bamboozled’s characters. Delacroix’s secretary Sloan (played by the strident Jada Pinkett-Smith) is one of those light-skinned sisters whose principles are in her careering. A shot of Sloan being obstreperous at a network meeting ("This is bullshit!" is her mantra) while showing off the Versace label in her white blouse is surreal. Sloan romances Manray, schooling him on literacy and black history, all the while complaining that the Mantan show she and Delacroix concocted is an affront. Her inconsistency is mind-boggling. Patronizing, too. When Manray accuses Sloan of sleeping her way up the network ladder, she bluffs with feminist rage–either Lee or Pinkett-Smith wants to ignore the damning detail that she did indeed sell her assets.
Equally ridiculous is Big Black (Mos Def), Sloan’s dark-skinned brother and leader of a radical rap group called The Mau Maus. In between their pseudo-Public Enemy taunts, the Mau Maus hunger for fame, then revolution. Lee further uses and confuses them to indict police brutality. Mos Def’s participation (he wears an "AFRICAN HELLACAUST" t-shirt) only diminishes the good work he did in his group Black Star and as part of last spring’s "HipHop for Respect" project. Bamboozled blurs the line between legitimate black public protest and Hollywood’s disgraceful co-optation of grievance. A misguided scene in which Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran protest Delacroix’s show makes a bigger mess of the issues. Exposing those activists as opportunists–they simply like seeing themselves on television–Spike proves their opponents right. Like so many in the Celebrity Age, they jump at the chance to be famous, to be Spiked.
Bamboozled is calamitous (it suggests a nightmarish collision of Girl 6 with the musical numbers from School Daze) but it also proves post-Civil Rights Era displacement. Lee, stymied by his generation’s prerogatives and compromises, settles for exploiting the topical scene rather than exploring emotions. Delacroix’s behavior, rooted in Wayans’ silly nerd vocal exaggerations, results in a strangely ad hominem satire of "entreprenegros" (Sloan, the Mau Maus, Sharpton or Cochran) rather than a full-fledged characterization. It’s weirdly spiteful, not insightful. Neither Delacroix’s boardroom embarrassment nor his maniacal anger ("Our aim is to destroy these stereotypes") develops in stages; instead, the film becomes hysterical and chaotic. Lee himself takes over Delacroix’s hissy fit.
Yes, Bamboozled is Lee’s poison pen letter to Hollywood. And so what? He doesn’t allow for the prevailing irony of show business: the often discomforting sacrifices made by performers who claim the privilege of the spotlight (read any black star autobiography). Lee’s distrust of any blacks the mainstream media authorizes besides himself becomes so bilious that he denies the complicating factor of talent–the reason people respond to certain performers, and our mixed reactions to Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel on up to Ben Vereen, Martin Lawrence, M.C. Hammer, etc. Aiming at the institution, Lee assassinates the inmates instead.
Bamboozled winds up perverting the Broadway show Bring in ’da Noise/ Bring in ’da Funk which, through its respect for performers, strove to commemorate historical defiance and find personal expression in black showbiz styles, especially tap dancing. It made Savion Glover a national figure; his recombinant power tapping gave traditional dance skills modern explosiveness and urgency akin to hiphop breakdancing and DJs’ scratching. That Glover’s art never quite caught on may have something to do with tap’s past associations, which even Noise/Funk could not erase. Tap’s look of old-time shuck and jive has popularly evolved into rump-shaking erotorobics, but the pleasure and skill consistent in each should be a reminder that something in performers’ generosity mitigates the level of their exploitation and offense. Vincent Smith’s 1986 biographical musical Williams & Walker memorably explored the passion and anxiety behind the blackface tradition. Sloan merely tells Manray, "Bert Williams, he was brilliant." But Smith dramatized Williams and Walker’s ambivalence, making it deeply felt, both noble and tragic.
Lee’s inconsistent satire shows off, then insults Glover’s specialty. Noting how black performers are still objectified but not empowered, Lee distorts the situation. The way he conflates Glover with past examples of buffoonery misperceives the tradition Glover (and George Wolfe, who conceived Noise/Funk) was trying to redeem. This cynicism may be related to youth audience (and Hollywood executives’) ignorance about black cultural history, and Lee plays into it by brazenly misrepresenting a cultural truth. Minstrelsy isn’t simply a denigration of black performance; it is the Western condition. Scholars Eric Lott, W.T. Lhamon and Ken Emerson have recognized and documented this; Lee cuts more cultural rivals down to size.
Bamboozled doesn’t express a pop moment, it picks a fight. Unlike a great Public Enemy record that expressed the joy of the hiphop movement, achieving political rhetoric and esthetic ecstasy, this film coarsens and diminishes showbiz and politics. Briefly there is an authentic basis for the sourness when Delacroix visits his estranged father, a chitlin circuit comedian named Junebug, played by stand-up comic Paul Mooney recapping his own razor-wit routine. Mooney’s points are concise and unnerving but Lee discards Mooney’s iconoclasm–definitively–when Delacroix tells us "Did I want to end up where he was? Hell-emphatically-no!" So it isn’t shame but obscurity that Lee most loathes. (Although he clearly approves of sports icons as black stereotypes–their photos decorate the network exec’s walls.)
Designing Bamboozled to provoke, Lee doesn’t court understanding, or even rage, but exactly the kind of praise the film has already garnered from the politigentsia. Lee’s trumpeters (such as Jack Newfield in the New York Post) like Bamboozled for demeaning either pop culture or black people. In the current intellectual muddle cultural controversy substitutes for political discussion. When Lee uses The Mau Maus to suggest that hiphop kills, he’s toadying to the media elite. He travesties the thoughtful satire of George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum with the Mantan show’s Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) singing "Niggers is a beautiful thing." Lee even enlists WLIB’s Imhotep Gary Byrd to glob on to radicalism; and a quote from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street ("Maybe Baldwin was right, maybe he was wrong") is just for tone. All these incoherent jests are deplorable–sheer cultural demagoguery.
By the time Lee gets to his montage of vicious Hollywood caricatures–cartoons, silent films, vintage comedies and melodramas (though only The Birth of a Nation is clearly identified)–you’re too numb to respond. Fact is, there is frightening beauty and instruction in the documentary quality of such coon clips; they shake and sharpen you as living history. Brian DePalma knew the power of confronting audiences with feared or loved stereotypes as he did in the "Be Black Baby" sequence of Hi, Mom! (still the greatest race satire in American cinema). But Bamboozled, full of bogus "displeased" audience-reaction shots, simply parades race anxiety without understanding it. Lee’s Hollywood montage is the final insult. After two hours of his own diatribes and heavy-handed "parody" harangue, it’s just more overkill.
Dogma ’00. Ellen Kuras shot Bamboozled with mini-digital-video cameras and the credits mention a Super 16 transfer to celluloid. Grainy, vague, underlit, murky, it is virtually unwatchable. For years Spike Lee has tried to be on the cutting edge of the digital transition–another bad move producing the atrocious Girl 6 and a mixed-media botch in Summer of Sam. Don’t tolerate this. Go see Leos Carax’s Pola X instead. Shot by Eric Gautier, it is, along with the upcoming George Washington, In the Mood for Love and The House of Mirth, proof of how great cinema can be when it is still film. Carax’s Melville adaptation is initially obscure, but that’s largely because we’ve forgotten how stories can be told through color, composition, mood–and vivid film imagery. In Pola X, which ponders the problem of youthful creativity and identity, Carax combines Godard’s visual analysis and Bertolucci’s sensuousness into an original style–the most romantic estheticism of his generation.
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