TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is tired of having his TV concepts rejected by the studio. Accused by his ultra-"hip" white boss Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport) of not being "black" enough, an enraged Pierre comes up with an outlandish idea: a modern-day minstrel show, complete with black-face, musical revue numbers, racial epithets, and the most ridiculous stereotypes imaginable. He enlists the aide of his reluctant secretary Sloane (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two street dancers Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) desperate for a buck. Pierre is flabbergasted when the network accepts the show, and then becomes a pop culture phenomenon. But not everyone enjoys the racial epithets the show provides, and the Maumaus, a group of wannabe gangstas/rappers, decide to take matters into their own hands - with tragic results.
Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" is certainly an ambitious film. It is an unremittingly vicious satire of the portrayal of blacks in popular media, a topic all too open to attack from Lee's inflammatory eye. However, having set up a potentially great and scathing satire, Bamboozled ultimately fails by being just too broad and over-the-top in its target.
Lee is certainly right in attacking media portrayal of African-Americans. And for the early sections, it works. The most effective is the portrayal of pop culture - namely gangsta rap and hip-hop. The Maumaus are ridiculous posers who don't even notice that one of their number is white. The TV ads for Blow Cola and Timmi Hiln!gger showcase the artificiality and toxic nature of gangsta culture. Women are hos, bitches, and sluts; the men are cool because they do drugs and kill people. Lee's double-edged sword goes after the white media (embodied by the embarrassingly patronizing boss Dunwitty) for perpetuating such images, but also the blacks who embrace it. Very few societal targets, regardless of race or position, escape Lee's critical eye. The film's use of clips from minstrel shows of the past, as well as cartoons and other caricature portrayals, as well as the commentary of Sloane, to make the point reverberate. All of this is brilliantly done, and the witty dialog and character interactions of the first half indicate that Lee has winner on his hands.
But the film ultimately fails due to the methods it employs. Seriously... is there a sentient human being alive who thinks that there would be a TV audience for a MINSTREL SHOW? Black face is such an inherently, blatantly offensive concept that it's impossible to take it seriously. For lack of a better word, it's overkill. And by showing it again and again, Lee rather overdoes (and undermines) his point. We get it; this show is racist and humiliating. Wouldn't Lee have better made his point by keeping the focus on the contemporary equivalent, or at least gone about it in a more subtle manner?
Of course, "Bamboozled" is a satire, so hyperbole is expected. But, there are limits to this, particularly within the media of film. Be too outlandish and over-the-top, and the point is lost. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" works because it is a written essay, where the venom beneath Swift's seemingly earnest tone is almost undetectable. In "Bamboozled", however, we see starkly outrageous images of minstrel shows about black-faced, watermelon-eating, chicken-stealing blacks (and the black-faced fans who love and emulate them). And that image in and of itself blots out the point Lee is trying to make with such images. We don't remember that the media is demeaning towards blacks; we remember the minstrel show.
The movie is also damaged by its cop-out ending, which uses violence as an easy solution to the problems it has set up. One could argue that Lee was attempting to show the detrimental effects Delacroix's show had on society. Thanks, but I'm not buying that. Whatever justice that argument has is killed by the ham-fisted, rushed way the climax is executed.
The acting is uniformly solid. Damon Wayans, an actor I usually dislike, makes Pierre an intriguing character. Pierre's descent into hell - ultimately embracing the stereotypes he presents through his work - is fascinating. Jada Pinkett-Smith gives a quietly effective performance as the film's conscience, although her actions at the end seem ridiculously out-of-character. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are both extremely likable as two characters who slowly realize what they're doing is wrong. Michael Rappaport's hopeless studio VP is hysterical, and provides some of the film's best moments.
In short, "Bamboozled" is an extremely ambitious film that starts out great, then becomes so outlandish and over-the-top its point is obscured. Regardless, one should note it is very much a point worth making.