Starring: Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tommy Davidson
Rated: R Drama, Music, Comedy
This film involves an ultraconservative, African-American television executive, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) and his work at Continental Network System (CNS). Attempting to distance himself from his roots, he has changed his birth name, Peerless Dothan; speaks with a neutered tone, diminishing any bass, i.e. a “scary or threatening Black man” quality; and often boasts of being a graduate of Harvard University.
He works for Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport), an offensive and crass White man. Dunwitty obnoxiously and continuously disrespects Delacroix, from claiming “he is more Black” than Delacroix to even his constant use “n*gger”, which he justifies as being able to say because his wife is Black, and their children are mulatto. To make matters worse, Dunwitty refuses to greenlight Delacroix’s script drafts because they portray African-Americans in a positive light.
Miserable in his racist and abusive working environment, Delacroix attempts to get himself fired by creating a television show that is repugnantly racist. Aided by his personal assistant, Sloane Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), he creates a modern-day minstrel show, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The show features comedy skits, cartoons and Black actors in blackface in variety sketches and comedy. It even stars a house band, The Alabama Porch Monkeys, an all-Black collective of musicians dressed in Black-and-White, striped prison uniforms of a chain gang, with chains and balls attached.
However, it is the dancing of two homeless men, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) who catapult the show to a top-ranked position for the CNS. The men, as street performers, danced for money outside the building where Delacroix and Sloane work. For the show, Delacroix even gives Womack the character name, “Sleep ‘N Eat”, and Manray the character name, “Mantan”, in salute of Mantan Moorland, an African-American comedian and vaudeville actor of the 1930s and 1940s.
The show becomes wildly successful and Delacroix’s offense turns to joy. He even defends it as satire when his father, Junebug (Paul Mooney), a comic on the “chitlin’ circuit” questioned him, his intent and the show’s effects, especially on African-Americans. Others who are appalled at the extensive fame and praise that Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is garnering include Womack, Sloane, and her older brother, Julius (Mos Def), who is the leader of an underground, militant rap posse, The Mau Maus. The Mau Maus, who had auditioned to perform as the show’s house band, decide that the show must be cancelled, as Malcolm X would command, “By any means necessary!”
Bamboozled, written and directed by Spike Lee, was either hated or loved by film critics. Those who panned it include Roger Ebert, who gave it two stars in his review, even questioning if viewers would perceive the true message of Lee. However, critics like Kenneth Turan thought it was brilliant. In his review, “Satire, Rage Add Up to the Audacious Bamboozled” for the Los Angeles Times, he wrote, “Savage, abrasive, audacious and confrontational, Bamboozled is the work of a master provocateur, someone who insists audiences think about the issues of race and racism we’d rather not face, especially when we go to the movies. It’s the angriest film an unfailingly angry filmmaker has yet made, skewering almost everyone in it, both Black and White. Taking comfort in its own fury, it doesn’t necessarily care if you agree with its points, just as long as you take the time to listen.”
The film’s soundtrack peaked at #60 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album. It featured tracks by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Chuck D, Bruce Hornsby, Common, Angie Stone, Erykah Badu and Prince. It would also be the first time that neo-soul singer, India.Arie, would appear on an album; she performed six tracks on the soundtrack.