Review by Stuart Whitmore:
Spike Lee knows a thing or two about stereotyping. His complex examinations of racial
disharmony are often written up—and sometimes written off—as race obsessed
screeds. The director himself rarely gets by without the adjective
"controversial" being attached to his name. So when the controversial Spike Lee
decides to make a satire about racial stereotypes you know it will be something worth
watching. But Bamboozled exceeds all expectations. The movie opens with Damon Wayans’
Pierre Delacroix reading aloud the dictionary definition of the word satire. It’s an
important disclaimer for Lee to put in place, considering that what is to follow involves
African American actors blacking up with burned cork and singing and dancing with many a
cry of "Yessir, masser sir!"
Among all filmmakers working in Hollywood today, only Spike Lee has the credentials and
the intelligence to get away with such a conceit. And get away with it he does. Bamboozled
lifts the heart of its plot from Mel Brooks’s The Producers but plays it to far
greater social and ethical effect. The principle object of ridicule is Rapaport’s
villainous TV exec, a wannabe homeboy who thinks it’s OK to call people
"nigger" because Quentin Tarantino does it and is fond of telling African
Americans the he knows black people better than they do. Other targets are skewered
equally ruthlessly. The Mau Mau, a rap group-cum-band of revolutionaries, preach militant
black nationalism while putting out an image of African Americans stuck in a ghetto rut.
After witnessing their performance first hand, Delacroix shudders: "I don’t want
anything to do with anything black for at least a week." A certain clothing magnate
is also spoofed, with a white-bread designer called Timmi Hilnigger taking the Bamboozled
kids to the cleaners by appropriating their culture and selling it back to them at
But race and identity are complex issues and Lee treats them as such. The strength of
the story is that it isn’t black and white. The characters have many dimensions.
Wayans’ character is a pretentious Ivy Leaguer who combines a desire to see
affirmative representations of black people in the media with a deep seated insecurity in
his own identity. Pierre Delacroix isn’t even his real name. Womack, Man Ray and the
other performers must reconcile their discomfort at blacking up—and taking the stage
names Man Tan and Sleep-and-Eat—with the seductive lure of fame and fortune. They are
artists who can only find demeaning roles through which to express their talents and make
a living—just like the black performers in the archival footage Lee intersperses
throughout the movie.
Lee’s brilliance in Bamboozled is to make Man Tan and Sleep-and-Eat genuinely
funny and likable. Their show is at once horrific and entertaining. You want to laugh and
cry at once. The dichotomy is never better expressed than in their first performance for
the TV pilot, where the shock and disbelief of the audience, who in real life had no idea
of what they were about to watch, gradually gives way to chuckles at Man Ray and
Womack’s antics. Not content with addressing race and identity, Bamboozled also
stands up as an essay on taste and decency. Who decides what is offensive and what is not?
Which subjects can we laugh at or satirise and which are too sensitive?
Lee expands on the themes of the film still further in his thoughtful audio commentary.
His theory is that the minstrel shows never actually ended, we’ve just become
sophisticated enough to drop the blackface makeup. African Americans are still largely
confined—and sometimes confine themselves—to demeaning roles and Lee views
Gangsta rappers, whose ghetto tales are lapped up by middle class white kids, as the 21st
century equivalent of the minstrels. The 50-minute making of documentary also calls on
critics and historians to discuss the wider issues and is produced with the same
thoughtful intelligence as the main feature. For budgetary reasons Bamboozled was shot
using digital video. Lee chose to use home camcorders rather than larger, professional
digital cameras, capturing a scene with up to a dozen cameras to give it the feel of a
filmed play. The technique produced plenty of footage. In addition to the 130 minutes of
action in the final edit, there are a dozen more deleted scenes which are included here
alongside more takes of the Mau Mau and Tommy Hilnigger in action. Sharp, funny and
thought provoking, Bamboozled is a film that defies any stereotypes that could be placed
on it. And that has to be a good thing."
Published January 3, 2002