Spike/DDB Gets "Bamboozled"
By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor
Two years before the making of Bamboozled, Warren Beatty's political satire, "Bulworth," posited an exhausted senator who orders and pays for his own assassination, and then - in a final bid for what Putney Swope would have called truth & soul - starts telling various constituencies (African-Americans, Jews, Hollywood fundraisers) the buried no-no's of political life. "Bulworth" stayed on safe ground (well, mostly safe ground) because Beatty was nearly always giving a rich white man's perspective of what he felt minority audiences needed and perhaps even longed to hear: raw truths.
Beatty never crossed an invisible but quite clear audience line; he mocked and insulted himself, not his audience.
Even when he starts rapping his message, and he's very good at this, Beatty is a cartoon politician, not a put-down artist. The fact that he's drawn to no less a beauty than Halle Berry, and she to him, helps the overall perspective Beatty gives to viewers, and viewers accord back to him. Audiences cut him a lot of slack. The picture got fairly mixed reviews and never made much money, which probably didn't surprise Beatty one bit.
Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" has a whole different set of pitfalls. In the first place, as an artist and director, Lee is the first major black filmmaker with a top Madison Avenue affiliation - Spike DDB, a vigorous and ongoing concern with some outstanding clients. But as a movie maker, Spike Lee has always marched to his own drummer, and here the drummer is like that black kid who carries around, sets up and pounds a huge set of pots and pans on the sidewalks of New York - he's a real noisemaker, a traffic stopper. This kid can stop a lunch hour crowd in its tracks and hold them for half an hour. "Bamboozled" has the same kind of power.
"Bamboozled" starts with a peculiar and charged situation at that mythical TV network in midtown Manhattan. A young Harvard-educated black producer (Damon Wayans) needs a higher-rated show for his foul-mouthed white boss (Michael Rapaport), who by the way happens to have a black wife and two biracial kids. Wayans seizes on two young street dancers (Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson) who are performing downstairs on the sidewalk for chump change. Wayans' million dollar idea is to put them in burnt cork blackface and star them in a hackneyed vaudeville-style revue with every black stereotype in the history of the stage and screen. (In case we think Lee just dreamed this up, the closing credits show us a montage of editorial clips echoing all the stereotypes we've watched in his movie.)
The revue, "Man Tan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show" is dazzlingly colorful, superbly choreographed and danced by a large black cast supporting Glover and Davison, and, yes, filled with offensive remarks, songs, costumings, props and actions. We don't know quite how to respond to this outrageous display, so Spike Lee cues us - the large, all-black audience watching the show live in a TV studio is taken aback for a while, but then slowly comes to enjoy, affirm and finally celebrate the show. Lee is similarly inviting us, the audience watching his movie, to do the same thing. And so we do - or don't. A lot of name critics reviewing the move bow out at this point, saying they can't condone racism on the screen, period, well-intended or not, directed by a black director or not, enjoyed by a black audience or not.
The satire deepens as the show gains national popularity. Wayans' white network boss is thrilled. Wayans' assistant (a street-smart Jada Pinkett-Smith and one of the key characters we watch carefully for reaction) more or less accepts the show's success, though she's uncomfortable with the elements of extreme prejudice. But there are warnings of trouble. The two stars become weary of their roles as Man Tan and Sleep 'n Eat, particularly when they return to their roots in their uptown 'hood. A number of young blacks called the Mau Maus, an Afrocentric rap group who know the stars, respond with anger and hostility to what they view as a racist show and a betrayal by their brothers. Wayans' own father, a nightclub comic in his twilight years with a traditional, old-school, routine, is not happy with his son's work.
One of Spike Lee's not inconsiderable talents is in projecting growing waves of tension and lurking violence. The film does explode in violence and death – a payback of sorts that is best not revealed here. One's responses at the conclusion are, to be sure, mixed and confused.
Lee is challenging the way we look at television, at advertising, at movies, at society, at history, at violence, and at ourselves. This is his job as an artist, and he has done it with care, surety and brilliance. How we respond is the question mark. But this movie is, at least outwardly, like the original 1984 Apple commercial done by Chiat-Day (directed by Ridley Scott), and telecast only once on the 1984 SuperBowl. It was a teaser spot so different, so haunting, and so outwardly negative, that all of top management under Steve Jobs didn't want to run it at all. Chiat-Day's creative head Lee Clow (it is said) told Jobs he'd put up $500,000 out of his own pocket to air it if Steve matched him with his own $500,000. Steve reportedly laughed and said, heck, if you believe in it that much, I guess we'll have to run it. The rest is history.
"Bamboozled" needed that same kind of angel going in, maybe a vote of confidence and chorus of approvals from black leaders or black opinion makers or black cultural heroes, in its initial release. Instead, the film's logo and poster puts up Man Tan and Sleep'n Eat in all their burnt-cork glory, crouching behind a medicine show poster that flags and fans all the film's controversies – practically an invitation to come in and dislike the movie. Or stay away from it and dislike it more. And, unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.