Few American filmmakers crank it up as boldly or as flashily as Spike Lee; just as few are capable of mucking it up so infuriatingly while staring the audience down as if to say, ”What’s your problem?” And nothing Lee has done is as flashy or as mucked up as Bamboozled, an obstreperous rant that excoriates both blacks and whites for the image of blacks in (white) majority popular culture, punishes every character, and hectors every viewer without mercy — or logic.
So acrid is the indictment, yet so muddled the arguments, that Lee feels compelled to include the dictionary definition of the word satire.
And, in fact, there is a good satire stuck in one corner of Bamboozled’s circus of stereotypes: Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated TV writer — the only person of color in the conference room — is under pressure from his yo-I’m-a-homey white boss (Michael Rapaport) to come up with a hip ratings grabber for a young urban audience. Hoping he’ll be fired, Delacroix creates Mantan the New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety show of shucking, jiving, tap-dancing black performers in blackface, who haul out the most offensive racist stereotypes of America’s culpable cultural past.
The show is a huge hit. (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers could have predicted the success.) Then what happens? Dammit, the usual Lee pileup. Undisciplined, unpleasant scenes of ”equal-opportunity” mockery — toward an angry rap group fronted by a radical hip-hopper (Mos Def), toward a Jewish media consultant (Dina Pearlman), and, unrelentingly, toward Delacroix, whom Wayans plays, in a miscalculation, as an effete fop with a ridiculous ”cultured” accent — overwhelm the moments of real shock. For every sharply framed scene of the great tap dancer Savion Glover as Mantan and comedian Tommy Davidson as his sidekick Sleep ‘N’ Eat, a welter of jumpy, meaningless novelty-act camera work (much of it digital video) jangles our eyes without striking a nerve.
Bamboozled is, in its own spiked way, Lee’s version of a Dogma movie (Celebration was an influence). But it’s also his own angrier, less persuasive version of the revolutionary TV series In Living Color — Wayans and Davidson are alumni — which redefined modern, racially charged satire a decade ago. Did Lee really mean to out-Wayans the Wayanses? Or did he just lose track of his targets? C+