Bamboozled was on TV last night. Spike Lee is the kind of guy people get red-faced about. Maybe you despise him, maybe you appreciate him, but his ability to provoke is unquestionable.
I remember how critics slaughtered Bamboozled when it came out, and upon actually seeing it for myself I can say that it bolstered my belief that the most splenetic critical reactions usually reveal more about the biases of the critic than the relative quality of the work being criticized.
As for the film itself, I think it can be parsed two different ways. As a think piece, a cinematic version of an Op/Ed column, it’s pretty effective, at least in spurring contemplation of the issues presented. As a movie it’s something of a failure, mostly because the structural technique, acting, and character development are flawed.
The idea of using the minstrel show as a satirical device is brilliant and provocative but instead of it being a huge sparkplug incident it falls flat through repetition and a muddled sense of satire. It’s hard to tell if Lee is implicating the audience of his film, since we are viewing the film’s minstrel show from essentially the same perspective as the film’s audience. There’s a scene where the black audience members are laughing riotously at the show and the white people are looking around uncomfortably and I’m sure this is a comment on something, I’m just unclear as to what.
The other problem is that Damon Wayans is simply not a capable enough actor, nor is his character developed enough, to carry the emotional weight of the movie. It’s a shame too, because he could be a poignantly sympathetic and conflicted character of huge proportions, but Wayans’ ridiculous, ever-changing accent and the confused motivations ascribed to his character prevent this from happening.
You gotta wonder about Spike Lee. He so often flirts with greatness, it’s a shame he doesn’t rein in his over-the-top tendencies a bit more. But he takes risks, and I have to admire that. I can’t think of anyone else making a film like Bamboozled, and for all its flaws I think its will only grow in stature as time goes by.