When it was released in 2000, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled was a resounding flop. It made back less than a quarter of its budget back at the box office and was panned by the majority of critics; it was labelled “empty-headed and unspeakably undisciplined… the antithesis of subtlety”, “an arduous mess”, and “more trash from Spike Lee”. But for me, the movie is one of the director’s best.
Bamboozled tells the story of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a TV exec who is harangued by his white boss into making a show that is “blacker” than his current output, which goes against Delacroix’s express desire to create shows about middle-class Black characters.
To expose the network as racist, Delacroix pitches a modern minstrel show, blackface and all. However, it becomes a huge hit, which leads to an explosion of unpredictable consequences for everyone involved.
The criticism of Bamboozled has aged badly. Spike Lee was accused of being “as guilty as anyone” of trading on the same Black stereotypes as Delacroix; these critics were apparently unable to distinguish between the characters of Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X and LITERAL MINSTRELS.
Even the review by the late, great Roger Ebert is an uncomfortable read, with lines like: “Delacroix isn’t very black; his accent makes him sound like Franklin Pangborn as a floorwalker.” Yikes.
But even political correctness aside, Bamboozled is simply incredible. Prophetic, audacious, furious and vibrant, this is Lee firing on all cylinders. From beginning to end, he is in perfect control of his craft – and determined to say things not everyone was prepared to hear.
Damon Wayans plays Delacroix’s pretension and ambition perfectly. Savion Glover is beautifully tragic as the tap-dancing Mantan. And Jada Pinkett Smith is superbly regal as the film’s moral compass, Sloan Hopkins.
Part of Lee’s strength as a filmmaker lies in his total lack of subtlety, so to berate him for that is like having a go at Michael Haneke for being a bit depressing. In fact, Bamboozled is so brilliantly ahead of the curve, you wonder if Lee has secretly cracked time travel… or is it just me?
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