In an ad for spike Lee's latest cinematic provocation, a grinning, red-lipped tar baby stands in a cotton patch eating watermelon. The New York Times didn't see fit to print that politically incorrect audacity. Didn't such racist mockery go out with minstrel shows, Uncle Tom, and Amos and Andy? Lee thinks not. And Bamboozled, a frustratingly uneven satire with undeniably sharp teeth, isn't afraid to shoot comic darts at its targets until blood is drawn.
Damon Wayans brings vigorous wit to the role of Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard man with a phony elitist accent who happens to be the only executive of color at a UPN-style network that is struggling for a hit. To mock his white boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a black wanna-be, Pierre comes up with Mantan the New Millennium Minstrel Show, an outrageous concept — think Mel Brooks' Springtime for Hitler — for a weekly series set on a nineteenth-century cotton plantation. For actors to play what he calls "Alabama porch monkeys," Pierre casts a homeless dancer (Savion Glover) as Mantan, and his friend (Tommy Davidson) as Sleep N' Eat. Pierre's long-suffering assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), is appalled, but the show is an instant ratings grabber.
He is clearly using 1976's prophetic Network as a model. The director of Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and The Original Kings of Comedy is mad as hell about a lot things, notably whites who are entertained by shuffling, eye-rolling caricatures and by blacks who are all too willing to play the buffoon for a shot at money and fame. Is Lee targeting TV shows such as The PJs and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer? Is he castigating Eddie Murphy (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps), Martin Lawrence (Big Momma's House) and the Wayans brothers (Scary Movie), who all scored box-office hits this summer by pandering with minstrel-show humor? Draw your own conclusions. But there is no mistaking the fire in Lee.
Until Bamboozled goes off the rails by turning violent and hectoring in its push for profundity, Lee gets in some choice licks at ghetto fashion (the Tommy Hilnigger collection, with bullet holes included), know-nothing rappers ("Reading hurts my head") and racial profiling. Shot on digital video for $10 million (no studio would ante up a bigger budget), Bamboozled is only partially successful at making a virtue of the immediacy that comes with graininess. The performances are often shrill, though Glover, eloquent onstage as the dancing rebel of Bring in "Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk", makes something heartfelt and moving of his character's self-disgust at demeaning his talent. At the end, Lee offers a film montage of racial stereotyping, a legacy of pop-culture shame that, like this comedy of shocking gravity, leaves you shattered. You won't look at race onscreen the same way again.