Bamboozled

Movie Review by Alice Castle

Starring: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson
Director: Spike Lee

When a word or term is “reclaimed” by a minority group does it lose its power?

The word “queer” has been reclaimed by homosexual men, “bitch” seems to have lost its resonance since Ali G started using it, and even the wince-making “nigga” doesn’t shock as it should do when it’s used by a black rap artist. Words and labels may lose their power to shock and offend over time but they are always replaced with new taboo terminology.

If we can reclaim words – can we reclaim genres? Can we ever imagine a time when there could be be a place for minstrel shows on primetime TV. The black and white minstrel show re-commissioned for the BBC? Unlikely. In Spike Lee’s satire BAMBOOZLED, US TV in scrutinised for its treatment of African Americans and its presentation of blacks in the entertainment industry.

The protagonist is the smooth talking, Harvard educated African American Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a writer for a struggling TV network. If we’re looking for labels he’s a “buppie” – a black yuppie trying to get on in a big bad white world. Delacroix’s white boss is Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport) a self-proclaimed “wigga”. He thinks being married to an African American and adorning his office with
portraits of black sport stars makes him understand what it’s like to be black.

Delacroix who can’t even identify the African Americans on his manager’s wall is a talented writer, but he needs a lucky break. and here he finds an opportunity. Something to rival the success of Jerry Springer perhaps – the only place on TV where three white women will tear each others hair out over a black man. Dunwitty is looking for a show which will guarantee huge ratings, something which will be lapped up by one of the largest TV demographics ,blue-collar blacks.

So Delacroix creates a show! And what a show it is. “The New Millennium Minstrel Show”. Hardly new and hardly something fitting for a new millennium. The black-face is old – cork burned and mixed with water to create a coal-black paste, red lipstick applied to thicken lips and the resulting effect is a sinister clown-like ghoul from the past. The skeleton in the American closet that really shouldn’t be let out. The whole project is akin to a post PC Frankenstein’s monster.

Delacroix picks two talented struggling street performers Man Ray (the toe-tapping Savion Glover) and his comic sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson) to head the show. Along with a watermelon patch on a plantation stage set, a band of convicts called the Alabama Porch Monkeys, an Aunt Jemima and a wicked white farmer the show is a resounding success. Delacroix and his faithful assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith) are horrified but pleased nonetheless with their critical acclaim.

BAMBOOZLED is a tale of people selling out to success, putting personal ambition before the cause – and as it’s a Spike Lee movie I’m sure you can guess that it won’t guarantee them a happy walk into the sunset.

BAMBOOZLED will get everybody talking about where we are in terms of race relations at the beginning of a new millennium. It may be a particularly American tale of racial derision but it is no less relevant any multi-racial. Do the old stereotypes remain? Are the new ones – gangsta rappers and their bitches just as bad? Whatever you think – it’ll make you consider the words of Malcolm X “You’ve been had, you’ve been took, you’ve been led astray, you’ve been bamboozled.”

4 out of 6 stars

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