This film is so schizophrenic I spent most of the running time trying to figure out exactly what Spike Lee was trying to achieve, and why it wasn't working. It wasn't until I saw the interview with Damon Wayans in the Making-of featurette on the DVD that it became clear what had happened. Wayans explained that the week before shooting began he had run into a guy who spoke the way his character in Bamboozled ultimately wound up speaking, and said to himself, "I've got to do this character." Which would have been okay on In Living Colour, where it would have been unfunny for the duration of exactly one sketch, and then we'd never have been subjected to that particular impression again. Unfortunately, in this film he foisted a completely unrelated persona onto a character that it is obvious from the dialogue was meant to be played utterly straight, utterly middle class, not with a stupid, phony accent. Time was, television was where the white middle class went to see itself reflected, and Wayans character, as written, appears to have become a TV writer because he's trying to give the black middle class a reflection of itself in mass media. These days, if you aren't represented on television, you have to wonder if you really exist, and he wants the black middle class to be able to say, there, you see, we're real: we're on television. It sounds like a small thing, but when the closest your culture has ever come to that is the Cosby Show and (god help us) the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, you're dealing with a culture that can't see itself in the mirror. But rather than showing us a decent man who begins with the best of intentions but winds up becoming grotesque when the racist wake up call he intended to shame his audience with turns out to be a hit with both whites and blacks, Wayans gives us a character who starts out as subtly nuanced as Steve Urkel and ends the same way. The message gets lost as the audience wonders what the hell Wayans is doing and what they're supposed to be feeling. The movie becomes a freakshow instead of a tragedy.
The sad thing is, scrape away Wayans' performance and the script is much, much better than it seems. If you want to know how it was supposed to play, just imagine the lead played by someone who didn't think he was still doing sketch comedy and suddenly it works. But don't blame Wayans. It's Spike's film, and it's just incredible that he would allow a single member of the cast to hijack and completely subvert the entire intent of the script. The lack of directorial control isn't limited to Wayans performance, either. Jada Pinket Smith gives the best performance in the film -- dignified and very appealing, she comes closest to what Wayans' character was meant to be and what he was hoping to see represented on American television -- but even she doesn't know how she's supposed to be reacting half the time -- sometimes she's in character, but sometimes it appears to be the actress herself reacting to what's going on in the scene and not her character at all. In short, she doesn't appear to have been given any direction, and this weird inconsistent tone is present across the board. But, again, her confusion is entirely down to the fact that she's obviously meant to respect Wayans' character in the beginning -- but he's already such a gross parody that it simply isn't possible that that she could like anything about him. Lee's hatred for what Wayans' character ultimately becomes is so intense that he can't seem to wait for him to become that, and instead of giving us the sad picture of the man becoming grotesque, he's already that way when we meet him, and there's no place for the film to go. Considering the tight control Lee is capable of, you get the sense he just didn't show up on set once things got away from him, and let the actors direct their own performances with no regard for the demands or tone of the script.
I think I know why he relinquished control, too. He knew he wasn't going far enough, and was, ultimately, turning in a futile effort. The only way the minstrel show thing works is if you come right out and acknowledge -- as Michael Franti and the Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy fearlessly did in their song 'Famous and Dandy (Like Amos and Andy)' -- that the minstrel show, unfortunately, can't be revived because it never went away. It's alive and well, wearing gold, rapping about ho's, and making movies buried under latex fat suits. If Flavor Flav isn't the new Stepin Fetchit, then Eminem isn't the new Elvis. But the black Woody Allen, in this case at any rate, appears to have lost the courage to turn that satiric gaze on African American culture's complicity in its own betrayal, and lets that message get lost in a welter of confusion. There's a long, sad montage sequence at the end of the film that strings together racist depictions of blacks on film, from Birth Of A Nation to The Jeffersons, (actually, I think it stops short of the Jeffersons, too, though they're referenced with a clip earlier in the film), but it ends twenty years too soon. Spike had an opportunity to show the continuity between black face and the sad state of affairs today. If he wanted to have another crack at making the film today the perfect final image for that montage would be a crossfade between stills of Manton Moreland and Flavor Flav, in his viking helmet and big clock necklace, in a clinch with Brigitte Nielsen.
Oh, hell no, you dittint say that!
Oh, hell yes, I did. It's a bad time to be black in North America. I certainly wouldn't want to have to do it. But satire has to be unsparing: once you take aim, you can't take prisoners, either. Too bad. Bamboozled could have been an interesting film. It could have been the black Network, as Spike clearly intended it to be. As it is, it's just a strangely futile misfire.