Sunday, April 11, 2021

Bamboozled is one of Spike Lee's most challenging and exceptional features

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a writer for the television station CSN who feels unfulfilled in his job. In order to get out of the contract keeping him glued to this gig, Delacroix comes up with an idea for a show that will surely get him kicked out of CSN. This program will be a new variety show where two Black performers will dress up in Blackface and do old-timey Minstrel routines. Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) are hired to star in this show, which, on paper, sounds like an easy cancellation and, by proxy, an easy way for Delacroix to pursue a better job. But then something funny happens. This new shows a hit. America loves it. Really loves it.

Spike Lee has never been one to hide his true feelings when he's making a movie, but in Bamboozled, Lee has one into "scorched-Earth" mode as he delivers an evisceration of America's media landscape. It's a domain that, as a closing montage of classic depictions of Blackface shows, is built upon the dehumanization of Black people. Reducing Black people to a mask white people can take on and off has defined the modern entertainment landscape and Lee is tackling this topic with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. After all, if the bigotry he's confronting is so overt, why shouldn't Lee's rebuke to it be similarly pronounced?

The funny thing is, Bamboozled is, to quote Hobbes in a Calvin & Hobbes comic, "not far-fetched enough really". The same year this movie came out in theaters, Jimmy Fallon was still donning Blackface on Saturday Night Live to portray Chris Rock. Over a decade after this film's release, Billy Crystal would don Blackface to portray Sammy Davis Jr. at the Oscars. While many critics at the time of Bamboozled's release thought Lee was rehashing a phenomenon that was no longer an issue, Lee knew the truth. American media still has a massive problem with how it portrays Black people, a toxic issue that manifests in uses of Blackface and countless other forms.

Exploring a tragically relevant issue, even in 2021, results in one Lee's most challenging and fascinating movies. With his works, Lee channels Robert Altman or Claire Denis in not just giving you a cinematic snack to chew on but a whole hearty meal. Some few this quality as emblematic of Lee's movies being messy. Me? All the Lee movies I've seen (save for Oldboy) have left me satisfied with his expansive scope. The way his works cover so much terrain is a feature, not a bug representing messiness. That's especially true of Bamboozled, which goes down so many different avenues to craft an appropriately dense referendum on how American media depicts Black individuals.

The scope of Lee's script also allows for a number of low-key scenes that would have been cut by another filmmaker only interested in making sure a film flies under the two-hour mark. Lee understands how important scenes like Delecroix visiting his stand-up comic father are to injecting layers into the lead characters. There's depth to be found in the seemingly throwaway scenes of Lee's works and Bamboozled is no exception to this phenomenon. Plus, giving the viewer so many storylines to juggle makes it fascinating to watch all the individual threads collide in an inevitably tragic conclusion that leaves no principal character unscathed.

It's a conclusion that's more brutal than tidy, more challenging than something that provides answers. After all, what answers can Lee provide? The problems surrounding the use of Blackface in American media weren't resolved in 2000, they're still not resolved in 2021. Lee doesn't offer a solution because getting rid of this kind of evil isn't so simple. It's one of the many parts of Bamboozled that reflect an incredible level of thoughtfulness. The same can be said for the cinematography by Ellen Kuras, which oscillates between appropriately vivid colors for scenes depicting the televised minstrel show and a more realistic washed-out look for scenes set in the everyday lives of the lead characters. The visuals in Bamboozled alone leave one with so much to think on. That's even more true considering these visual details are paired with one of Lee's most insightful scripts.

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