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Bamboozled - The Criterion Collection
A popular notion, in these supposedly over-sensitive times, is to look at some piece of older media and say "you couldn't make that today." Nine times out of ten, that's a flimsy accusation hurled by people who haven't truly interrogated how and why cultural sensitivity has shifted. Every once in awhile, though, you find an example like Bamboozled, Spike Lee's scathing indictment of how Black people are portrayed and warped by the cycle of mainstream media, which was bankrolled (for $10 million!), produced, and released by a major motion picture studio in 2000, and features mainstream stars like Jada Pinkett Smith and Damon Wayans. No matter how sharp the movie's satire is (as a diamond) and no matter how high Lee's pedigree was, it's impossible to imagine a company as big as New Line was in 2000 or the vast majority of marquee names with any hopes of mainstream success being willing to gamble on an idea like this, even with the same budgetary constraints (such as the film's DV cinematography). In the history of art that has pulled no punches, Bamboozled not only swings hard but seems to invent a way to follow through on punches other films chickened out on.
Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, an executive at Consolidated Network Systems, where his manager, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) keeps rejecting his ideas for new shows. Pierre, frustrated by Dunwitty's belief that he knows what Black audiences want better than an actual Black person, hatches a simple scheme. Pitch a show so deeply, utterly racist and retrograde that CNS has no choice but to fire him, breaking his contract and allowing him to move to another network. His loyal assistant Sloan (Pinkett-Smith) is skeptical, but Delacroix is committed, hiring the two panhandlers he sees outside his building, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) to lead the show. He redubs Manray as "Mantan" and Womack as "Sleep'n Eat," the hosts of "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show." Manray and Womack are even to don blackface for the sake of the show's racist throwback style. Of course, Pierre's scheme backfires, and "Mantan" becomes the network's biggest success.
At times, Bamboozled's specific target seems vague or contradictory, but that's by design -- Delacroix's horrifying hit feeds into a confusing cycle of media images about Black people that ricochet back on themselves over and over. Is Delacroix the victim of a racist system that pushes guys like Dunwitty to the top, or is he, as an executive who ropes innocent artists like Manray and Womack into his scheme, part of that same power structure? Are Manray and Womack, as struggling, starving artists, given a pass for the negative impact their participation has because they have to take the work they can get, or are they directly responsible when the cheering live audience they see in the crowd every night also shows up in blackface? What of Sloan, who has clear eyes about the damage that "Mantan" is going to do from the beginning and yet refuses to quit her job or accept much responsibility for it? Or consider her brother (Yasiin Bey), a gangster rapper in a band called Mau Mau who goes by Big Blak Africa, who has no trouble identifying the show as racist but struggles with what to do about it? Each one of these characters crosses a line in the movie, and then another one, zig-zagging back and forth across a line of perception that deftly illustrates the struggle a Black creative like Lee is probably all too familiar with in his own career -- one could make the case that Bamboozled even provides enough room to place itself on the table for discussion. There's a sense of Lee's anger at people like Delacroix in the movie, but both Lee and Delacroix label their work satire.
And then there's that unflinching, radical intensity. Lee has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker (which is not the same as graceful, which Lee's work often is), but Bamboozled really goes for the jugular, presenting most of "Mantan" in beautiful 16mm rather than grungy and muted DV video, just so the audience has to look at it even more closely. Delacroix's office fills with racist memorabilia, including Sloan's especially literal gift of an antique tin bank, sculpted to look like a coon caricature, which swallows money placed into its hand. Scenes spend additional time reiterating the nature of the show and its place in the culture that practically dare the viewer to get frustrated. For non-Black audiences, it places them in the same kind of no-win bind that Lee has placed his characters in: getting frustrated with a seemingly never-ending onslaught of racist images must be frustrating if it's not an experience you have to live with every day. The film ends with a montage of racist imagery from the past 100 years of film and television, and yet the montage is only the tip of the iceberg.
The film's cast is uniformly excellent. Lee slyly uses the beauty of Glover's dancing skills as another way to keep the audience's eyes on Manray's horrific performances, and Glover is nearly as skilled dramatically as he is on his feet, with a gentle warmth that is key to the character. Tommy Davidson, who just five years earlier, was playing a screaming African tribesman in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, is astounding as Womack, turning in a richly emotional performance capped by a knockout of an exit scene. Pinkett-Smith gives one of the best performances of her career as Sloan, who spirals perhaps hardest out of any of the lead characters as the ripple effects of the show's success throws her career and personal life into disarray. Finally, Wayans walks a strange but compelling line between cartoonish and sincere, playing Delacroix with an exaggerated fake accent and a live-wire energy that makes the character feel unpredictably unstable.
Criterion offers Bamboozled on Blu-ray with artwork that combines two of the film's theatrical posters (one centered around an image of Glover and Davidson, the other around the title logo), into one striking image. The art comes with an eye-catching orange/black color scheme, with hints of red and green. Inside the Scanavo case, there is an image of Glover applying his makeup on the reverse of the sleeve (which also serves as the Blu-ray main menu), and a picture from the show on the front of the included leaflet. There is also a sticker affixed to the plastic featuring an image of Spike Lee's autograph.
The Video and Audio
For those who haven't seen Bamboozled already, the majority of the film was shot on 1999-era digital video tapes, with the footage natively existing in standard definition. The rest was shot on 16mm film. Obviously, it's the latter sections where the 1.78:1 1080p AVC image on this disc, newly remastered in 2K by Criterion, really shines, with robust and vibrant colors, crisp detail, and a nice sheen of grain. The rest of the video looks, well, like standard definition video, with color distortion, heavy aliasing, and limited detail in anything other than a close-up. Sound is a lively DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which is largely used to handle the dialogue, but gets in a little surround activity and immersiveness with the musical sequences and songs. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
The bulk of the supplementary material on Criterion's new Blu-ray are carried over from New Line Cinema's long out-of-print Platinum Series DVD. These extras include a audio commentary by Spike Lee, the documentary "The Making of Bamboozled" (53:20), 19 deleted scenes (17:04), the music videos for the Mau Mau's "Blak iz Blak" and Gerald Levert's "Dream With No Love," and alternate parody commercials created for the film (music videos and parodies: 18:38), an animated gallery of poster art (2:37), as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.
Criterion has improved upon this already excellent collection of features with three new video pieces. First up is an interview with Spike Lee (25:41), conducted by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark (who wrote the essay included in the leaflet). I enjoy listening to hearing Lee speak, and this interview is no exception, although if I'm being honest, this new piece doesn't dig particularly deep into the movie's themes or ideas, touching on all of the basic bases without much interrogation. Clark also pushes unusually hard for an "answer," which Lee predictably rejects. Still fun, but inessential. The subsequent interview with Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson (22:54) is much better, an excellent dive into the actors' history and how they got involved with Lee, and their memories of making the movie. Davidson seems to have sharper memories of the production and has wonderful stories about the production, and Glover talks about his feelings earning his first choreography credit and what he tried to bring to the dances, and how the movie impacted him and his life. There is also a new interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter (10:21), in which she talks about her history of Lee and how she designed each costume for each character and the overall approach to the movie. Finally, there is a video essay entitled "On Blackface and the Minstrel Show" (17:34), by film and media scholar Raquel Gates. She shines some additional light on the specific tropes and reference the movie is touching on in the course of its satire, contextualizing the ideas within cinematic history. She also dives into an idea that crossed my mind during the film, which is what to do about the areas where racist media portrayals and the history of black performance art inevitably intertwine. A great piece.
20 years later, Bamboozled's satire remains acidic, as sharp and relevant as ever. The DVD has been out of print for years, and the film has struggled to receive its due among Lee's esteemed catalog. Thanks to Criterion's new Blu-ray edition, which offers a new 2K transfer, all of New Line's extras, and some brand new ones, the film is ripe for rediscovery. DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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