When it comes to provocative storytelling, there really is no one else like writer/director Spike Lee. More than any modern artist, Lee minces no words with his films, cutting straight through the bullshit each and every time. In his 2015 adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata titled Chi-Raq, he transposed warring Athens for modern Chicago. In it, he included several sermons from John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan which decried the gang and police violence in the aftermath of an in-film shooting. In 2018’s BlacKKKlansman, Lee adapted the memoir of black officer Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. These stories, and many of his other original early works, use the medium of film to cross-examine audiences against their own prejudices and social weaknesses. He challenges audiences again and again to consider and evaluate why they think what they think, why they do what they do. In 2019, Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing was added to the esteemed Criterion Collection and, now, so has his 2000 satire Bamboozled, complete with a 2K restoration and a bevy of goodies. Truly, Lee’s send-up of the intersection of cultural appropriation and capitalism is just as impactful today as it was upon its first release.
Struggling tv writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is tasked by his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), to come up with the next big television hit. None of the socially conscious programs Delacroix’s come up with have worked, so, in his frustration, he decides to create a revival of the minstrel era with full-on blackface. Knowing that he’ll be sued for breach of contract if he quits, Delacroix surmises that there’s no way his bosses will approve the idea and fire him. With incredible zeal, Delacroix hires two street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), to headline his show and loads them both up with back-up dancers, writers, the whole works. The program is a hit and none of the principles in the production are ready for the fallout.
The whole of Bamboozled is a lot to unpack for a first time watch and is certainly not something that young viewers should take in. It’s not the casual use of the N-word, foul language, or violence that makes Bamboozled difficult to process or a cause of caution, it’s that the film is so layered that a certain amount of media savviness is required in order to understand Lee’s thesis. Wisely, to help those less informed, Lee uses the character of Sloan, Pierre’s assistant, portrayed wonderfully by Jada Pinkett Smith, to explain aspects viewers might be less versed in under the guise of explaining to Manray or others. It’s often a great deal of exposition that would feel otherwise out of place if not for Lee’s ability to mesh the narrative with the message. Therefore it’s not so out of place to hear long portions of dialogue explaining the black experience as it correlates to American entertainment and history. However, without a certain understanding of how the music, entertainment, fashion, and other industries have co-opted aspects of the Black experience for financial gain, it will be difficult for audiences to see more than face value. For instance, the billboard Manray and Womack pass under at the beginning of the film advertises clothing for an alt-reality Tommy Hilfiger in which those in the ad are shown wearing the clothes while facing away from the public, palms against a street wall, the colors of the African flag adorning the clothes they wear. It’s quick and doesn’t come up again until a faux-commercial break, but the imagery is purposeful and clear to those who recognize it. What is it? Character Junebug (Paul Mooney) puts it best when he states to Pierre that, “they want to be black without being black.” In this case, the ad is a reference to wearing the clothes of a culture without the societal afflictions that come with it. Wiser and more gifted writers have tackled the notion of why young female musicians are seen going through their “grity, risqué” stage when partnering up with Black artists or why artists like Elvis Presley could blow the doors off venues, but the artists whose music he stole died penniless. This, specifically, isn’t addressed by the film, but it does explore how white audiences see no problem with capitalizing on Black culture and the many denigrating ways in which the Black community has suffered through gross representation for more than a century.
Believe it or not, Bamboozled is a comedy, even if a dark one. Lee makes sure that there are plenty of laughs, even if he’s poking the audience at the same time to wonder why they are laughing. Is it the performance? The caricature? A universal truth or a cultural stereotype? This is what makes Lee standout from other supposed provocateurs, including a very direct line of dialogue that appears to swipe at Quentin Tarantino. Lee doesn’t embrace Black culture for his own selfish success, he uses his experience to tell the stories of the Black experience in all the shades. In the case of Bamboozled, it means exploring members of the community who view their upbringing in the Black community as something to overcome (represented by Delacroix and his fake accent), those who are willing to degrade themselves if it means success (Manray), those who turn bitter at the success of others (Yasiin Bey as Sloan’s brother Big Blak Afrika), and those who would appropriate it for themselves without concern of the realities that go with it (Dunwitty). Under a lesser storyteller, these characterizations would feel like a weight on the story, but, in Lee’s hands, they are characters who help the audience come to understand the larger notion at play within the film. It’s a remarkable achievement, even if not, at times, particularly rewatchable. Then, as presented by Lee, there is nothing joyous or exciting about Delacroix’s revival. Within the world of the film, it’s a failed satire, serving to instead bolster the separation of communities. One need only see Womack’s reaction to putting on the blackface make-up using traditional methods to see the psychological damage a program like Delacroix’s instills. And yet, we laugh. The question is: why?
If, however, all of this is old news to you and you’re coming to this to find out about the Criterion release, let’s get down to brass tacks.
To begin with, they are heralding the release as director-approved, so you can rest assured that Lee was involved in the restoration in some capacity. In this case, the restoration was supervised by cinematographer Ellen Kuras (He Got Game) and approved by Lee. The interesting thing about the film is how it looks guerrilla-made: shot with low-res handhelds to capture the sense of being “in it” with the cast until it transitions to something more professional looking when presenting what the studio cameras see while filming the revival. Because of this, there’s more noticeable grain present, even as the colors are more lush and vibrant. In terms of supplements, there’s a previously released commentary with Lee, along with a new one featuring Lee having a chat with Brooklyn Academy of Music director of film programming and noted film critic Ashley Clark, who also provided an essay in the liner notes. There’s also a previously released documentary, “The Making of Bamboozled,” featuring principle cast and crew, along with a new featurette “On Blackface and the Minstrel Show” that digs deeper into the material Lee utilizes as both fodder for Bamboozled and shows off within it. As of this writing, the Criterion edition of Bamboozled is the definitive release of the film.
Bamboozled Special Features
- New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Ellen Kuras and approved by director
- Spike Lee, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Lee
- New conversation between Lee and film programmer and critic Ashley Clark
- New interviews with choreographer and actor Savion Glover, actor Tommy Davidson, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter
- On Blackface and the Minstrel Show, a new interview program featuring film and media scholar Racquel Gates
- The Making of Bamboozled (2001), a documentary featuring members of the cast and crew
- Deleted scenes, music videos for the Mau Maus’ “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love,” and alternate parody commercials created for the film
- Poster gallery and trailer
- PLUS: An essay by Clark
Available for purchase from Criterion beginning March 17th, 2020.
**Be advised that Criterion is offering a special discount of 30% all in-stock and preordered content until April 30th, 2020.**
Final (Film) Score: 4 out of 5.