Review from July 2009 / Original review from November 2000 here / Click Here to Comment
Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett Smith, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Mos Def, Gano Grills, Charli Baltimore, Canibus, DJ Serch, DJ Scratch, Dina Pearlman, Jani Blom, Gillian Iliana Waters, Danny Hoch, Sarah Jones, Gary Byrd, Matthew Modine, Mira Sorvino. Screenplay: Spike Lee.

A conversation with Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph

Photo © 2000 New Line Cinema/40 Acres and a Mule
TR: Bamboozled, if I remember rightly, was one of the first films I reviewed for the Telegraph where I really wanted a lot more space. It was released in the UK in April 2001, a few months after I started the job, and I remember coming out of the screening buzzing, and with my thoughts pulling in all sorts of different directions. Because the movie already had the whiff of commercial pariah about it, this wasn't to be a lead review, and I knew I had a tough job on my hands communicating how this fascinating mess was actually to be recommended in fewer than 300 words: the flaws were manifest, the underlying intelligence, scalding and confrontational as it is, needed some careful argument to disinter. How good a job I did may be lost to time (or possibly gathering dust in my mum's scrapbook), since the Telegraph's online review archives don't go back that far, but my guess is I'd find it woefully blunt and inadequate now. However, all is not lost! The Nick Davis archives are a bit more comprehensive than the Telegraph's, so we have your original review as a record of how you felt about this at the time. I certainly wouldn't call it blunt OR inadequate, but how much of that piece do you stand by, Nick, and what other facets has this crazy stew of a project revealed to you over time, for better or worse?

ND: I can't imagine trying to review this movie in 300 words. The starter paragraph you just wrote is 241 words. Of course, wordy bastard that I am, I can't imagine reviewing anything in 300 words. But really, Bamboozled especially!

Since you evoked the context of your first viewing, and since mine bore heavily on my response to the film, I'm reciprocating: I saw Bamboozled on the last night of its one- or two-week run at the Hoyts Triphammer Mall theater in Ithaca, New York, a four-screen movie theater that existed virtually across the street from a prominently marqueed and signposted ten-screen multiplex owned by the same company. By contrast, you had to know the Triphammer complex was there; it was tucked behind a used-car lot and a handicrafts store, and you couldn't see it from the road. Many Ithacans had no idea it existed. If you followed the weekly listings, Hoyts clearly used the Triphammer complex as a dumping ground for "arty" studio-distributed stuff they were probably required to exhibit but didn't think anyone in upstate New York wanted to see—Bringing Out the Dead, Being John Malkovich—and for absolutely any movie made by or about black people, even when they were grossing the kind of money that, by those rights alone, should have earned them a berth in the main complex. So, as far as I'm concerned, in the year 2000, I saw Bamboozled in a racially segregated, semi-concealed theater, and it only showed once per night, and I was the only patron there. Hence my sharp and bitter sense, during that first screening, that Lee was shooting grenades at vicious, longstanding American problems that powerfully persist, albeit under different guises.

It definitely helps to walk into Bamboozled with your own sense of ire already provoked about race, cultural semiotics, and corporate behaviors. I don't mean to imply that the movie never works on its own freestanding terms, but I notice that my initial review rarely alights on anything unambiguously "good" about the movie, except the urgency of its subject matter and the almost contagious, self-vandalizing power of the movie's own fury, which gets scrawled out in so many colors and directions. I do still think it's a good movie, although it's now even clearer to me what a mess it is, and that it often interferes with what's working best within it. In which category I would file: the Mau Mau's and their inchoate politics, the historical footage and racist bric-a-brac in the mise-en-scene, Jada Pinkett Smith's performance as Sloan, the "Bomb" liquor and Timmi Hilnigger spoof-s ads, and every complex moment where Pierre, Sloan, and other non-hopeless characters catch themselves momentarily enjoying parts of the Man-Tan show in spite of themselves.

What about you? Where would you start in a list of what's best in Bamboozled, despite all the caveats we're going to have to start tossing out and working through?

TR: I do wish we could straightforwardly sort everything into the "good" or "bad" column, but it's a sign both of the movie's hydra-head confusion and, in a weird way, its integrity that I find this so difficult. I like your point about how it vandalises itself: I go back and forth on almost every element of scenario, performance, and visualisation, all of which can veer within single scenes from inspired to dysfunctional, and often back again. Not that I'm keen to go rooting around in the film's family tree too much, but one of Lee's acknowledged touchstones is Network, and what strikes me again and again is that it's not Pierre Delacroix, ostensibly the tragic prophet figure we might expect to see aligned with Peter Finch, but Lee himself who's mad as hell and shouting himself hoarse from the rooftops. He seems willing to sabotage any idea of coherent character development to find fresh angles of indignation and reproach as the movie rolls along. Still, on this viewing especially, I found the chameleon figures of Sloan and even Delacroix more compelling and justifiable. So: I really like Jada Pinkett, even, or even particularly, when she takes a cue from Wayans and becomes a little mannered in her executive affectations. I really like her early scenes with Mos Def, in which she persuasively shifts persona, and he makes the best case for the radical counterpoint of the Mau Maus; that subplot feels increasingly stranded to me, and I think it's otherwise a failure, actually. The directness of those TV-spot send-ups has a memorable force and sting, though I do wonder if they aren't a little on the nose, given the more complicated indictments of cultural appropriation Lee is otherwise so committed to exploring? The multiplicity of reactions to the Man-Tan show is really at the core of what's going on, and I absolutely love how many competing viewpoints Lee often manages to cram into a single scene, sometimes a single frame. I love the nervous contagiousness with which the audience gradually decide it's OK to laugh, and the way the shaking of dissenting heads doesn't just break down along racial lines.

And, pace your original review, I love how the show becomes satire in ways Delacroix couldn't possibly have foreseen or orchestrated. (There's an early clue to this in the fact that it's not him but the hideous Dunwitty who first suggests their two stars should black up, right?) Though it's an inventively weird performance in its better moments, Wayans really isn't helping us understand whether Pierre (a) wants to get fired (b) wants to issue a colossal wake-up call (c) even wants his show to get seen, without which it's hard to imagine (b) working, and (d) actually relishes its success or realises in any way what a monster he's unleashed. He's an incredibly tricky character to get a handle on, but what's clear to me is that he can't be a satirist. Satire needs principles and he has none—he sells out totally. So the definition of satire he's providing in the opening scene is itself satirical, I think. When the show takes on a life of its own, just like the mechanical figurine on his desk feeding itself coins, he ceases to be any kind of mouthpiece for the film's agenda—he's stopped winding it up, if you like. And by the time Savion Glover comes out, to the shock of the crowd, without the blackface they're all wearing, Man-Tan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show has come full circle and actually scored the satirical coup de grâce Pierre originally claims he was after. It might be my favourite thing about the film that it sets Pierre up as its prime mover but turns him into his own victim or fall-guy, and it's something I kind of fail to expect every time I watch it.

ND: Hydra-headed indeed! The film is so astonishingly erratic on every score that every point you made deserves its own conversation. I want to pause with Sloan and the Mau Mau's, and then get to the audience and the satiric kickback against Delacroix in a bit. One of the things that strikes me as being the most nutty about the movie is that Sloan quits at the moment and for the reasons she does - not because of the show per se, but because Sloan balks at Delacroix calling her "the help," a bitter derogation to be sure, but not something Sloan has failed to grasp up to that point, and surely not as problematic to this woman, insofar as Pinkett Smith and Lee have been presenting her, as is the success and the monstrosity of the Man-Tan show. She stands tall through this ghastly experiment in who-knows-what-exactly (as you've just reminded us) but quits because she and Delacroix have a fight where they say things they might want to take back? Lee and the actors don't sell the scene as a symptomatic cover for what's really going on, and worse, Lee indulges one of his worst habits of sexualizing all conflict, usually at women's expense. We've just heard that Sloan slept with Delacroix along the way to being his assistant, which I don't believe Sloan would do, but even less would she admit this to Manray. And all the ill will that revelation has unleashed spills all over the next few scenes—which include Sloan berating Pierre for sleeping with too many women when he should be minding the show (for which the film has shown us no evidence).

After this bizarre redirection of motive, Sloan hops even further to being the unkempt, bathetically distressed avenger of Julius, who dies at the end of that Mau Mau subplot which I agree ends in failure, once they become vigilante kidnappers and murderers. (What I like for a while about the Mau Mau's is the terrifically slippy line they tread between being hotly conscientious objectors and being unthinking voiceboxes for critiques they haven't thought through. A key line in their brilliantly stupid-smart "Blak Iz Blak" number goes, in response to racist white ideologues, 'The way Frantz Fanon put it... they lucky I ain't read Wretched yet!') Not only is Pinkett Smith at her wit's end to improv her way through this final deranged-assassin fold in her character, but surely Bamboozled could have saved itself on two scores by aligning Sloan's anger with that of the Mau Mau's, and tempering some of their strangled but vitriolic anger with her cool pragmatism? It would be fascinating to see Lee consider the possibilities of lavishly educated and privileged black media brokers working in nervous tandem with outraged black proto-activists, in the street and on the mic. Forget that Bamboozled, like so many Lee films, raises huge questions about his penchant for dramatic structure. Is it possible that Lee, certainly hyper-educated and as mad as hell, is too timid to think structurally, or to push his characters into these truly risky alliances? Or, more positively, do we imagine that he's so impatient with the 1-to-1 logic of allegory that he'd rather make a movie where everyone constantly betrays themselves, in dramatic as well as moral principle, than offer something that might look more like dogma or social recipe? It shouldn't count for nothing that we're both so intrigued by the hurricane he whips up here, though it's hard to see how it would have harmed Bamboozled to sustain its own arcs and characters a little more consistently. That fantastic scene where Sloan gives Pierre the tremendously barbed gift of the coinbank signals how interesting it would be for her to start exploring her capacities for subtle subversion, her lurking passive-aggressor.

TR: It's a batty ending, to be sure, and highly disappointing in the ways it co-opts the different characters to do plain stupid, inconsistent, and flagrantly implausible things; by the time Sloan is coming at Pierre with a pistol I think the movie has taken almost total leave of its senses. We can argue to what degree Lee recovers his ground with the final minstrelsy montage and closing shots of Manray, the juxtaposition of which resonates quite powerfully with me. This time, I was basically just waiting for that and twiddling my thumbs for the ten minutes or so prior, because I have a propensity to tune out when a filmmaker seems to be fulfilling certain self-imposed structural obligations which make no real sense and don't further any of his film's broader conceptual gambits. In this instance I'd say Lee is too keen to push Pierre as a tragic figure, and thereby complete his fall (which to me doesn't work in the slightest, largely thanks to Wayans) and enlists Sloan as a convenient agent of nemesis, a strategy I find almost more demeaning in itself than the did-they-or-didn't-they mechanics by which Lee forces the situation about.

ND: "Demeaning" seems like the right word, and I agree that Wayans's bold experiment in affectation creates insuperable hurdles to this already-desperate strategy for ending the film. It strikes me that what the film needed is someone whose elitist mannerisms, however strongly marked for the audience, need to be much less obvious to the character. A Pierre who has no idea how much or why he rubs other people the wrong way, or who truly cannot help it, might achieve a tragic confusion of motives or self-perceptions—which in turn might resonate with, maybe even clarify what you pointed out earlier: the foggy mix of tactics that lead him to mount this show. A really expert actor might even have blurred the whole discourse of affectation, and shifted some burden of proof to all the other characters who are perhaps too quick or too prejudiced in writing Pierre off as a snob, a buffoon, a ridiculous refugee to the power class. But Wayans's Pierre, name change and all, is too saturated with grating self-consciousness to be as tragic or as interestingly obtuse as a Pierre who was more helplessly stuck, however absurdly, trying to be all things to all people (except toward people he's sure he doesn't care for, like the Mau Mau's).

TR: The person we've not discussed yet in this analysis is Manray, also required to do an about-turn from malleable naif to jealous, possessive accuser, which I'm hardly any more inclined to buy or find interesting. Frankly, it's the one section of the movie I'm tempted to write off entirely—it almost writes itself off, making less impression in the acting or even the visuals (Kuras letting them slide from rough, poppy contrasts into drab underlighting) than anything earlier, with the possible exception of those Mau Mau interludes shouting at the TV and taking guns out of crates. The notion of Sloan teaming up with her brother and the gang might have been a better rescue, and creates interesting possibilities in my head, but it still leaves the problem of what would happen to Manray, and indeed Pierre, while still making sense of Sloan. It's hard to see how any of this could end mega-satisfactorily, given the near-insolulable problems Lee has set himself, but as it is I pretty much see it as a movie without an ending.

ND: You're making me realize how little I actually think about Manray when I watch or think about Bamboozled. Savion Glover's acting isn't nearly to the level where he can pull focus away from charismatic castmates like Mos Def or Pinkett Smith, or from gleeful showboaters like Wayans and Rapaport. And I agree that Manray's culminating transformations are so unconvincing that it's almost to the film's benefit that we don't hang the whole project on its presentation of Manray. (To include: as obviously as Bamboozled works out from Network's example, why doesn't Spike think that the CNS execs would be only too happy for Manray to lose it on stage, to go mad or even to die on TV?) But I feel like it's a failure of my own imagination that I've never tried contemplating Bamboozled from his point of view. Watching Glover walk around with his tap shoes tucked into his belt, fondling and pulling them out even in incipient boudoir moments, it seems that his take on Manray is, as he in fact says, "As long as the hoofin' is real." There's an argument to be made for him as the cipher in the movie whom no one, sympathetic or otherwise, ever quite grasps. Though I do appreciate that he gets one of the film's most deliciously savvy lines, when Sloan starts protesting the ghastly computer-animated opening to the Man-Tan show. I love that he's so impatient with her mystified, helpless surprise: "Where do you work, in the lobby of the damn place?"

TR: Should we be so hung up all on this, though? It's not as though Lee is the first dramatist to set a whole load of balls rolling simply in order to watch them collide, without worrying too much what happens when they drop off the table. To pick a couple of movies I like even more, that's kind of my experience of demonlover, though I know Assayas strategises it better as a dizzying formal collapse, and of Adaptation., though I know Kaufman and Jonze ironise it better as a deliberate final-act meltdown. Is it just that Lee lacks the self-conscious smarts to "do" his ending in inverted commas? I totally agree he should have worked harder to come up with something, but I'm also wondering if this film is the kind of grab-bag of effects and arguments which was only ever going to work in this misshapen and slapdash way, and along the way.

ND: I certainly agree that Bamboozled, in its very entropy, exerts a similar fascination and vitality to those other pictures, and I probably prefer it in some ways to Adaptation. Still, I don't think Lee is temperamentally or ideologically all that far from being able to direct a more focused piece that would still have the virtue of a Pandora's Box-ish, unresolvable ending. As annoyingly quick as he can be to sell out his characters (and don't even get me started on his ruthlessness toward the Jewish, Yale-educated female consultant), he obviously loves them enough that he keeps schizophrenically recuperating the ones he seems most inclined to ridicule, Pierre being the clearest example. If he could stretch out that frenzied ambivalence that's internal to each characterization and instead build it into some conflicts between the characters, the piece and its ideas could still cohere in ways that would feel tragically inevitable and/or comically undecidable. Terence Blanchard's impressively melancholy score would make just as much sense laid over a finale where Man-Tan and Womack are fighting about the show, Pierre is stuck trying to save it and to kill it, and a fraught alliance between Sloan and the Mau Mau's (or either of them separately) was converging to sting Pierre at the peak of his dubious success. Wouldn't that be sad, even if it were also hilarious? Spike clearly thinks they all have a point, or at least a forgivable point of view, even if he's also prepared to stick it to all of them at different times. I suspect he harbors fears about how American critics and audiences would respond to a movie in which all the major black characters wind up at each other's throats, since that's not the kind of dirty laundry he seems most eager to air. Oddly, though, it's very similar to what he does wind up doing, albeit in a much more graceless way that wreaks havoc with the writing, the editing, the acting, and the photography, and all through these prisms of hyperbolic violence and outlandish implausibility that are impossible to take seriously.

Though look at us, taking it seriously anyway—and no less so now, almost ten years later, than we did at the time! Which only returns us to your last question: if the film prompts this much thought, why do we keep trying to "fix" it? I guess because it seems like there's a proto-Bamboozled lurking just inside this electrifyingly messy one that would have all the authoritative heft and the exciting refusal of easy moralisms that almost everyone (rightly) loves about Do the Right Thing. And short of When the Levees Broke, it's the only film of his I can think of from the 00s that starts with a basic ground of material that equips him to dig so deep and say so much.

TR: I don't think either of us, since we're nearing the end anyway, should get started on Myrna Goldfarb, whose very name is a worrying omen for the character assassination Lee is about to unleash; imagine garish variants on that scene for 138 minutes, and you've got easily his worst movie, She Hate Me. There's almost always stuff in his films I want to fix, but you've gone to much more imaginative lengths redirecting the morose hell of this one's closing movement. The parallel universe in which it concludes as forcefully as it starts is certainly an enticing one to explore. Still, I continue to find much more to engage with throughout Bamboozled than I do in 25th Hour, a better-structured, better-shot, more consistently acted, and far more critically well-appreciated film that I think is built on hollow foundations of male solipsism and homosexual panic which it simply disguises better than SHM. The foundations of Bamboozled—its articulate rage, social historiography, vision of corporate politics and apoplectic frustration with the imbalances of a placating, see-no-evil culture—remain as real and rock-solid to me as those of Levees, whether watched in 2000, 2005, 2009, or hopefully for years to come. Sorry, that's a hideous accidental pun on levee foundations, but anyway, yes, these strike me as his most bracing and important achievements since the early 90s. Bamboozled is a riotous mess, but I'm keen to play up the riot more than the mess: it's such an angry one, and such a commendable instance of Lee's anger being pitched (but for Myrna) at the right targets. It's what my favourite university tutor, a bit of a Lee fan, would have called a classic alpha-gamma, capable of swingeing faults in its own dramaturgy which muddy but never completely extinguish the hot source of its best invective. We could wish for more careful organisation, but not for more provocative firepower, so I'll split the difference and give it a B.

ND: I'll do the same thing, which makes this a fine occasion for clarifying that in my world, and I suspect in yours, a B movie is a solidly above-average movie. I work with a lot of students and hear from a few readers for whom a "B" is clearly the new "C," so the point bears enunciating. But then, Bamboozled presents an even more opportune moment for showcasing how inadequate any rating system often is for capturing what makes a movie worth seeing or avoiding. As I think we've both agreed, even the ferociously ripped edges and the soupy thinking that make it impossible to grade Bamboozled higher are frankly transfixing to behold and to think about, often as much as what is already smart, crafty, sobering, funny, proficient, and important about the film. Leave a Comment

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