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Bamboozled Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 April 2001


New Line Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport
release year: 2000
film rating: Three Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

"Bamboozled" is a film that produces conflict both on the screen and within the viewer, a movie that doesn’t seem to prompt so much a review as it does a term paper. On the one hand, director/writer Spike Lee’s rage is understandable and, for much of the film, channeled into a remarkably multi-faceted narrative that covers a great deal of thematic ground. On the other hand, "Bamboozled" is intended as satire. The main character gives us a definition of the word "satire" as the film opens and, in case we’re still not clear, Lee explicitly states on the audio commentary track that "Bamboozled" is a satire (adding that some critics didn’t comprehend this). For most people, however, the term "satire" equals "funny," and while "Bamboozled" has the occasional amusing line, the movie is overall more disturbing than humorous. While it is true that there are people who might find lots of laughs in "Bamboozled," they are for the most part not the likely audience for this film.

"Bamboozled" is, of all things, a very loose reworking of the movie "Network" mixed with a touch of "The Producers," while centering on entertainment industry racism. African-American network TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), when we meet him, is already suffering from the stress of network politics in general. He also has to contend with his obliviously bigoted boss Mr. Dimwiddy (Michael Rapaport), who continually uses racial epithets in an effort to show how "down" he is. Dela (who understandably fantasizes about punching out Dimwiddy) hits upon what he thinks will be a brilliant way of getting out of his contract and embarrassing the network at the same time.

Dela pitches a series based around a "minstrel show," starring African-Americans in blackface doing comedy skits showing their characters to be ignorant, dim-witted and lazy, interspersed with bouts of phenomenal tap-dancing. Dela believes that by underscoring the insulting qualities inherent in product the networks have already deemed acceptable entertainment, he’ll finally provoke a public outcry. He finds as his stars two street performers, Man Ray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who are initially able to overlook the implications of the gig for the shot at money and fame. To Dela’s amazement, the show is a hit. To his even greater astonishment, he finds himself so seduced by success that he can’t walk away from it – even though he realizes that he’s now entrenched as part of the problem rather than providing any kind of solution.

The above makes "Bamboozled" sound a little more didactic than it is – there is a great deal of ironic finger-pointing going on, but it’s in the context of action rather than straight-out lecture. Most of Lee’s points are well-taken and he finds telling means of making them. However, everything except the tap dancing – performer Glover has long been an acknowledged master of the form and he’s stunning to watch in action – is depicted as being so blatantly racist that we’re cringing from the get-go. There’s little chance anybody watching "Bamboozled" is going to be momentarily seduced into enjoying this fare that (in the movie) captivates a nation. Even the segments that don’t involve the minstrel sketches seem designed more to elicit contemplation than laughter. When Delacroix fantasizes about trying to hand off an award to Matthew Modine (playing himself), it’s clearly a nod to the real-life Ving Rhames presenting his acting trophy for "Don King: Only in America" to a startled Jack Lemmon. We get the reference and puzzle over what might have prompted Rhames’ unusual act, but we wind up wondering whether this incident really has the nefarious underpinnings that Lee sees in it or whether it was simply a matter of Rhames’ idiosyncrasies), and become temporarily disengaged from Delacroix altogether. The ending of "Bamboozled" is so over-the-top that it overshadows much of what has come before – the allegory becomes sledgehammer-heavy. The montage of derogatory images of black people (African-American, African and others) gets the message across more wrenchingly and emphatically than the exaggerated "satire" does.

Wayans employs an affected accent as Delacroix that establishes him as a bit of a poseur – it may be an unnecessary flourish, but it certainly creates drama in the moments where the character is jarred enough to drop the artifice. Wayans makes Delacroix persuasively conflicted, at once egocentric and self-loathing. The actor also deserves credit for having the guts to be in a movie that singles out his family’s sketch comedy series "In Living Color" by name as a prime example of the modern minstrel show. Glover gives a strong performance as a phenomenally talented, easygoing sort who gets sucked dry by the machine he joins. Jada Pinkett-Smith has power and nuance as Delacroix’s assistant, the film’s most sensible figure who nevertheless finds herself trapped by her own goals. Rapaport does an expert job as Dimwiddy, a consummate boor who fatuously imagines himself one of the good guys ("Bamboozled" may be telling us what to think of the character a little too precisely when Dimwiddy says, "Spike Lee is full of shit").

The film’s visuals are clean and handsome and look surprisingly filmic, considering that (as Lee explains in the audio commentary) the movie was shot mostly in mini-digital video. The sound mix makes good use of the 5.1 format, with beautifully positioned effects, although in Chapter 1, Stevie Wonder’s soulful pop ballad about slavery rolling through the mains and rears somewhat overwhelms Wayans’ dialogue in the center channel. Chapter 4 has a fascinatingly complicated mix, with helicopter rotors and jazzy rap in the rear speakers, along with an echoing bullhorn. Chapter 7 isolates various tap-shoe impacts in individual speakers for a terrific effect that puts us next to the performer, an effect that is augmented with multiple dancers in Chapter 20. Chapter 8 has a wonderful, menacing sonic effect when the score jumps up in the rears, actually providing a scare. Chapter 23 plants us in the middle of an audience, with questions coming from specific positions in front of and behind us.

There are two music videos on the disc, the Mau Maus’ rap song "Blak Iz Blak," with the music itself primarily in the center and mains and percussion and echo in the rears. Gerald Levert’s "Dram With No Love" is a much more melodic, soulful affair, with smooth harmonies in the rears and a seductive tune and vocals up front.

It is fascinating to see how many facets of a whole range of issues Lee manages to pack into the film, including many different forms of self-destruction and sexism as a way of undermining a potential voice of reason. It’s an impressive presentation of ideas, and it certainly makes the viewer think, but for all the complexity of the characters, we find we’re tracking the themes more than we’re involved with the people. "Bamboozled" winds up being a movie that it may be more involving to talk about afterward than to actually watch.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround; English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Feature-Length Commentary with Director/Writer Spike Lee; 19 Deleted Scenes; Making-Of Documentary; Animated Art Gallery; Mau Maus "Blak Iz Blak" Music Video; Gerald Levert "Dream With Love" Music Video; Theatrical Trailer; Cast and Crew Filmographies; English Subtitles; DVD-ROM Features
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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