Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and some Violence
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Starring: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, Thomas Jefferson Byrd & Paul Mooney
Spike Lee. That name can spark an instant bit of admiration or dislike depending on what you think of the man’s personality. Speaking personally, I can’t stand watching him in interviews. However, we have to separate the art from the artist. I actually thought his OLDBOY remake was decent and still claim that his best film is the underrated INSIDE MAN. 2000’s BAMBOOZLED is Lee’s attempt at satire. Lee seems to have birthed this film after being fed up with the lack of diversity on TV. Aside from a number of sitcoms (e.g. THE COSBY SHOW, AMOS ‘N’ ANDY, BERNIE MAC), you can’t really pin-point any major critically acclaimed racially diverse shows on the small screen. While the concern for this is undeniable, whether or not this film successfully succeeds as a satire is up for debate.
Pierre Delacroix is a TV executive with his job on the line. The Idiot Box isn’t exactly pulling in enough viewers to meet demands, so Pierre is assigned to “blacken” up a hit show by his scumbag boss. Pierre, insulted by the very notions being thrown his way and unable to breach his contract, decides to get fired for the most offensive show pitch in cable history. His scheme is creating a modern-day minstrel show and much to his chagrin, his boss loves the idea. Pierre’s obviously controversial series (complete with black-face, slavery jokes, the n-word, and watermelon plantations) causes a cultural movement where black-face becomes the new Pokémon. As a result, Pierre begins to believe in his own tainted success and things take a downward spiral for all involved with the show.
Again, Spike Lee’s points about the lack of cultural diversity on TV (save for safe sitcoms) bring a lot of relevance, even 15 years after this film’s release. However, the performances come off as distractingly forced and unnatural. Damon Wayans (known for his comedic roles) adopts a phony sophisticated tone as Pierre. I know that this movie is a satire and technically not supposed to be taken as a straight-forward drama, but Wayans just doesn’t belong here. I don’t understand why he had to use a purposely nasal, annoying voice in an effort to show off how “educated” his character was. More annoying than his performance is Michael Rapaport as Pierre’s boss, whose line delivery was wooden and unconvincing. The rest of the cast members don’t fare much better either (the only other recognizable face for me was Mos Def, who’s downright embarrassing as a stereotypical thug). The real star of this movie doesn’t seem to be the characters though, but rather the shocking black-face on display. If you watch any old cartoons or documentaries about the entertainment industry, you’re bound to come across painful scenes of this racist image. Spike Lee unapologetically shows it frequently. Though it might be purely for shock value, there’s no denying that BAMBOOZLED contains upsetting scenes.
The handheld look of BAMBOOZLED distracts from the overall story. This appears to be an extremely low-budget effort and you wouldn’t actually believe that this film came with a price tag of 10 million (barely making a fifth of its budget back at the box office). The appearance of low production values (in spite of a big budget) serves as the biggest problem with this film. However, the running time definitely stretches things out far longer than it should have. There are pointless scenes scattered throughout and it takes a solid chunk of the movie before we even get into Pierre’s sarcastic pitch gone horribly wrong. Finally, the movie does veer into dramatic territory in a final third that I loved. I wish the whole movie had gone for this darker, more serious approach.
BAMBOOZLED is basically Spike Lee taking Mel Brooks’s THE PRODUCERS and putting his own spin on it. The material has a much more dramatic execution towards the end that I wish the story held for its entirety. The acting is pretty bad from everyone involved and the cheap-looking cinematography really irked me (perhaps, a majority of the budget was spent acquiring the antique black-face collectibles seen throughout the film). The obvious message behind BAMBOOZLED still holds relevance today (even as we’re currently in a television Renaissance), but the overlong running time detracts from that as well. In our culture (where the Kardashians are idolized, Honey Boo Boo was a hit, and the Don’t Judge challenge is a fad among teenagers), the idea of a modern minstrel show isn’t really that far off. However, Lee’s BAMBOOZLED is a potentially great film that gets knocked down to (at best) one-time-watch territory due to shaky performances, an overlong running time and cheap cinematography.