In which I watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
I bought this DVD when it was first out. It was already cheap! An acquaintance who’d seen it in a theater just shook his head at me. But I knew it featured actors wearing blackface. So I thought, “Everyone is reacting to that! I will toss aside the baggage of politically correct convention! I will value writer and director Spike Lee on his own terms, as a radical artist with a searing vision!”
Why’d I Never Watch It?
I had a bunch of roommates and no one ever, ever wanted to try it. Then 9/11 happened? Also it is a movie about a variety show and, like everyone, I hate variety shows. On top of that, I knew I had to be mentally AMPED to respond to intricate layers of artistic vision.
Now, thanks to flanny’s diamante about 1D and raccoons (way back on June 25, ohhh man), I know what I’ve been missing.
You have probably not seen this movie. Is it searing, is it radical? Is it good?
Obviously, my first thought was “What kind of ridiculous, unlikely apartment…” Then I remembered my plan to be mentally amped. Okay, brainjuice, get flowing!
“I wonder if the ludicrous clock reminds Dela that he has limited time on Earth and must use it wisely! Or if it reflects how society is a complex mechanism in which we each are a cog with a role to play!! Or mainly just, he overslept? Although, the clock seems to be wrong. Aha! A broken mechanism! So many implications, Opening Shot!”
Yes: In What Way Does The Author’s Use of The Clock Symbolize The Protagonist’s Struggle AND How Does This Relate to Our Discussion of The Uses of Irony? These are real questions this movie wants us to ask. And let me tell you, by the end you will feel pretty sure it wants the clock to mean all these things — even when the meanings cancel each other out (like, we are cogs spinning in a relentless machine! And that machine is… stopped?).
Of course, if you live in New York City, or are one of the 150 million Americans who has visited New York, maybe what you also think during the opening shot is, “Hey! I know that fucking apartment!”
And guess what. The apartment is not even the hardest part of the opening. Oh no. We could handle a clock. No, better yet is Dela’s voiceover. Here is the first thing we hear, while he’s brushing his teeth:
Hey, what if all movies started this way!
I’m sorry, I’m spending too much time on the first seconds. If it helps you, I’m beginning to hate myself for it. But they telegraph really well the confusion to come. Example: Dela puts on glasses (to look smart; obviously it’s a wardrobe decision, not “Damon needs them,” and glasses actually recur throughout as a Looking Smart leitmotif), but also — thanks to the voiceover — we have the possibility that even though all other characters hail Dela as an intellect… maybe he’s not! Maybe he’s a socially awkward dope. Because how many geniuses preface a joke by saying, “Humor. Webster’s defines humor as…”
The real problem is that it’s equally possible the voiceover isn’t intended to show us he’s a dope. Maybe it only wants to tell us this is a satire (so that every time something unfunny happens, we remember “Oh, right—this isn’t a comedy”?). And so here we are: in a movie that’s poorly organized at telling us who the main character is right alongside very clearly mapping out who wears glasses and why and when. It is this wobbly in five seconds and it stays wobbly, open to interpretation not the amazing way art is but the puzzling way some memos are where you work.
Let’s get on with it. At the TV channel where Dela works, Michael Rapaport is in charge of programming and he does NOT wear glasses, if you catch my drift (he is a moron). He is also a spazzy racist played so broadly the performance is a kind of blackface. Or whiteface? I don’t know, it’s complicated and grating. He calls all his top writers into a boardroom and yells at them to be more creative. “The numbers better go up, people!” This is not how TV channels run. I feel sure of it.
Exasperated, Dela pitches a blackface variety show, thinking Rapaport will finally be all “You have shamed me, sir.” Instead, Rapaport gets a boner (yikes) and he brings the idea “upstairs,” where invisible powers greenlight a pilot. To star, Dela plucks from obscurity two street performers that he finds dancing on cardboard. Their names are Womack and Man Ray (Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover), and in a last-ditch attempt to make sure the pilot doesn’t get picked up (I think??), Dela gives them the stage names Sleep’n’Eat and Man Tan.
The show becomes a monster hit. So a whole bunch more stupid shit ensues.
Man Ray’s arc is to rocket to riches and fame, become a jerk, and then hit a Why Am I So Sad Even Though I’m Successful phase. Dela doesn’t really have an arc except he also becomes a self-hating jerk. He is the show’s sole writer, but we never see him wrestle with exactly how to write blackface sketches. He tells us he has a mortgage to pay and then voila, we are neck-deep in characters being humiliated along racial lines. Good job.
Jada Pinkett-Smith plays his assistant and oh man. She starts sleeping with Man Ray? Who knows. They hang out once and it’s awkward, and she thinks he is not very smart. Their next scene is a painful breakup? Man Ray demands to know if she ever slept with Dela, and she says yes but years ago. “So that’s how you got your job,” he says, and she delivers an irked speech about how a woman has brains and he’s wrong to assume etc. — during their breakup you will feel the same level of involvement that you feel waiting at a red light while a freight train lumbers by. WE NEVER EVEN KNEW THESE TWO WERE A COUPLE.
This movie. It really wants to make the point that ladies don’t always sleep their way to the top. Call me crazy, why not do that by having Jada not sleep with Dela??
There are moments of real emotion, though. Watching Man Ray backstage apply his blackface is upsetting. It’s him alone in a shadowy room, looking into a mirror, misery in his eyes… WAIT. What? Showbiz makeup gets applied in extremely bright lighting by union professionals.
Anyway, yeah, a craze erupts of fans wearing blackface. Initially the audience is uncomfortable, but then the sign says APPLAUSE… then it says HOWL. They get swept up. It’s a hit, and it’s put on BY black people! It’s safe! So, sure, audience; go all in. The craze comes across more as ignorance-based than malicious? There are also black fans who show up in blackface to (as one lady says) “keep it real.”
Meanwhile critics love the show for being “groundbreaking,” we are told. Which is weird because it seems like the show is straight-out restaging sketches from 1923. Critics would notice that. It might have been fun to hear one explain groundbreaking how. Are these restagings? Are they supposed to be original — like this is a movie about a new boyband whose song “Yesterday” is roaring up the charts and we have to pretend the Beatles didn’t write it 50 years ago? Really unclear! Mainly though, Dela is distressed the critics dig it.
You know what, movie? Don’t waste time wondering why people you made up love the show you made up. Instead, do a long dream sequence about it winning an Emmy. Also, remember we need a scene where Jada gives Dela a congratulations gift.
Not everyone loves the show. Jada’s brother is opposed. He leads a hip hop troupe called the Mau Maus, and is played by a very good Mos Def in the first 70% of the movie. He pitches an idea to Jada: Give my band a show like The Monkees! (Right? How great would a hip hop Monkees be! Someone, DO this.) But Jada thinks that’s dumb and throws him out, so he calls her a House N-word and she calls him a Field N-word. You know, like family. From there, his semi-angry political views grow increasingly semi-angry.
In the final 30%, Mos Def stops playing a real character and is handed the movie job of hatching a brutal, terroristic plot to bring down the show. The overall mood shifts from joyless confusion to despair, and finally the movie self-destructs.
You know what’s odd? The driven-to-violence denouement is way more dehumanizing and horrifying than watching Womack and Man Ray struggle with blackface. At least they struggle — how does the intelligent and controlled Jada turn into a tear-streaked, gun-wielding plot device? And somehow most disheartening of all, the big “I’m not gonna take it anymore” speech is lifted from the movie Network (1971; I’ve never seen it, but I know the speech because that’s how famous it is).
Why is the speech disheartening? The fact that it’s unoriginal sticks us with two thoughts, both hard to stomach: 1) Bamboozled is saying there’s no way out. We can’t ever be original and individual. Even at peak rebellion, we’re partly trapped in someone else’s version of the world. 2) Since Spike Lee wrote the speech this way, he’s saying even Bamboozled and he himself are trapped. Neatly done (probably intentional). But declaring no one can break out in real life and no one can break out in art, glork, that is one comprehensively depressing note to end on.
The actors are good. Maybe not Rapaport! He’s doing a thing, though. There is a sequence where entertainers audition for the show; it’s 7 minutes full of affection and reality and weirdness, and it made me laugh out loud. There is a perfectly relaxed but still complicated scene of the Mau Maus hanging out, 3 minutes long. A scene between Jada and Mos Def is the best example of code-switching I can think of in any movie. Dela visits his comedian dad, Junebug, for 6 minutes; Junebug is a great short story. The actor (Paul Mooney) implies a lifetime of pride and disappointment, and it’s efficient and graceful. “Every N—is an entertainer,” Junebug says approvingly, and then he gets fall-down drunk. These scenes are what this movie could have been.
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
In the rest of its 2+ hours, Bamboozled doesn’t have much fun. And its ideas on the solarizing photography process of Man Ray (1890-1976) are frankly not lucid. It’s definitely a work of genius and ambition, but it’s also an inchoate, grinding desolation without catharsis, so you end up physically ill while watching it. (Okay, there’s weird catharsis, which did not work for me on first viewing.) All this makes it hard to rank Bamboozled anywhere except #410. That’s right below the epic nightmare Zardoz, which is similarly ambitious and makes me physically ill, and above 2008’s Doomsday, which has zero ambitions and makes me physically ill. I award Bamboozled one trash can, which it must get into, and then I am throwing that through a window.