It seems that despite all that has changed since the times of segregation and extreme racism and evolved communications on race and racial identity, we still ignore many of the most obvious issues regarding race and how it is portrayed in mainstream America.
More specifically, African-Americans’ portrayal in mainstream television has always been a hot topic. And most of the time we are too uncomfortable to actually talk about race in non-academic environments. Spike Lee, with his witty intellect, addressed the issue of African-Americans in television when he created “Bamboozled” in 2000.
When Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a black television executive who is also Harvard educated, comes up with a show for the failing television network with which he is employed, he ends up getting more than he bargained for. The show is created after Delacroix decides to help two young black kids, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who do a tap dance and clown routine in front of his office building. He decides to call the show “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” as an homage to and condemnation of early black film-star Mantan Moreland (it’s a film full of interesting contradictions!), which is part sideshow and burlesque, with the monstrous and racially charged themes circling around black face performance.
The main characters of the show, Mantan/Manray and Sleep’n Eat/Womack, perform all of their song and dance in black face. The program becomes massively successful, but not the critique of race Delacroix was hoping for. Instead, the show’s audience completely overlooks the satirical element of the program, seeing only, to Delacroix’s utter dismay, an acceptable, if racist, form of entertainment.
“Bamboozled” continues to grow with many more plot devices and characters. The cast also includes Jada Pinkett Smith as Sloan Hopkins, Delacroix’s very intelligent assistant and ex-girlfriend, who tries to get Manray to rebel against the show for its racial connotations and historical meaning. Mos Def plays Julius Hopkins, a member of Mau Mau: Big Blak Afrika, a comic allusion to the gun wielding black power groups of the 1970s.
“Bamboozled” was filmed in digital video, which to some might look like a low budget film, but it seems to be an intentional maneuver in order to give the look of television. Spike Lee also brings in various television clips from the many generation’s portrayals of African-Americans to emphasize his points. Lee also includes a clip from his own film “Malcolm X” in which star Denzel Washington explains that the black people have been bamboozled.
“Bamboozled” is hilarious and extremely uncomfortable at the same time. Spike Lee raises questions and issues regarding mainstream television that no one else seems willing to ask. The film is dense with historical reference, charged ideas, satire and farce, yet remains, on the whole, engrossing and entertaining. Though not always an easy watch, the film more than rewards its audience. This is a film which could be seen many times over due to the many ways in which Spike Lee addresses black identity.
“Bamboozled” is available on Netflix.