Spike Lee makes movies as though they had the power to communicate things and change lives. As a filmmaker, he is at his best as a provocateur, making movies about things that matter and, consequently, making movies that matter also. Too often, we fall victim to complacency, accepting the status quo in our lives and entertainment. Spike Lee challenges our preconceptions, and dares us, as Malcolm X did in the quote from which this film's title derives, not to be bamboozled. Lee's specific target here is the state of race in television and the media and the way we permit ourselves to be lulled into willing acceptance of the images it feeds us. His tool is satire, and like Tarantino did when he defined the term “pulp fiction” at the beginning of that film, Lee runs through a litany of dictionary definitions of the word “satire,” just so we have that idea firmly planted in our minds when we encounter his movie's disturbing and controversial ideas and imagery. The story is designed as a fantasy of what might happen when a TV creative executive, Pierre Delacroix (Wayans, in a very measured performance), designs a new show that intends to be so offensive and disturbing that public outcry will cause it to be yanked from the network and humiliate his bosses. He develops a minstrel show that is set in a watermelon patch and has black actors performing in blackface, a house band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys, dancing pickininnies, old vaudeville humor, and constant use of the word “nigger.” Some of these song-and-dance routines are the movie's highlights and reveal the soul of Spike Lee as a would-be director of musicals -- something we first glimpsed in School Daze.
In fact, most of Lee's films build on each other: Bamboozled
is certainly a good companion to Lee's comedy performance film released earlier this year, The Original Kings of Comedy.
Both films deal comically with African-American imagemaking and were shot on digital video and blown up for theatrical release, something that helps promote Bamboozled's
frenzied fantasy atmosphere. The film's imagery is also greatly assisted by the contributions of visual consultant Michael Ray Charles, whose own artwork employs artifacts of racial stereotyping and history in the construct of contemporary pieces. There are also clear references in this film to the movies Network
and A Face in the Crowd,
two classic American movies to have dealt smartly with television's impact. As is typical in a Spike Lee movie, the director has trouble with his third act. Too much is tossed into the ring and the last hour becomes a frantic swell of emotions and ideas, not all of which are exactly on point. But like Bamboozled's
Delacroix and Network's
Howard Beale before him, Spike Lee has one thing right: It's time for all of us to lean out of our windows and holler, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!”