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MORIARTY's Been BAMBOOZLED!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

The strangest thing just happened. I was sitting in the depths of The Labs, reading the script for SHOWTIME, the new Eddie Murphy/Robert De Niro buddy cop/reality show action/comedy. I just reached the part of the script where Murphy’s character Trey steps forward and offers up his suggestion for a catch phrase to the producers of the reality show that he and his new partner Mitch (De Niro) are the new stars of. He says, “Whenever I’m about to make a bust, I take three deep breaths and say, ‘It’s showtime!’”

For most of the script, as I was reading I was able to picture Eddie Murphy or Robert De Niro with a fair amount of ease. The script is well-written enough, commercial, and I was having a mildly pleasant reaction as I was reading. But when I came to that line, delivered by Eddie Murphy’s character, it wasn’t Eddie Murphy’s voice I heard.

It was Savion Glover’s.

I’ve had the DVD for Spike Lee’s BAMBOOZLED sitting here on the stack at The Labs for the last two weeks. I’ve been trying to decide how to write about this. I think there are things about it that are great. I think there are things about it that are smart. But in the end, Spike Lee’s typical narrative weaknesses undermine the thing that he’s trying to do, and like many of Spike’s films, BAMBOOZLED is ultimately a disappointment.

So why am I hearing Glover’s voice as I read?

I mean, I wish I could just dismiss BAMBOOZLED outright and be done with it. Bad films are easy to deal with. It’s flawed films that are frustrating. I think the initial concept of the film is easily one of Spike Lee’s best premises. A black network executive, reacting to an order to be “more black,” creates a show so offensive he’s sure it will never get on the air. It’s a modern-day minstrel show, replete with imagery that is part of America’s intentionally-forgotten cultural past. To his surprise, the show not only gets on the air, it becomes a smash hit, and he is left to deal with his Frankenstein’s monster, his damned success. It’s a powerful subject, ripe for satire, and at the start of the film, Spike’s on his game.

The first thing we hear is the creaking of a boat on the ocean and a song by Stevie Wonder about the Middle Passage, and there’s no mistaking the lacerating wit of Spike Lee in that choice. Damon Wayans wakes up, starts to prepare for his day, and in voice-over, he defines “satire,” and there’s no mistaking the heavy-handed obviousness of Spike Lee in that choice. 1:13 into the film, and we’ve already seen the two extremes the film seems to play at. Damon’s playing Pierre Delacroix, a CNS executive who has never had a pilot picked up. His boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), rakes him over the coals for the pilots he turned in, “white people with black faces.” Dunwitty is probably the single most pointed satirical voice in the film, and Spike makes some phenomenal points about the misappropriation of African-American cultural history.

There’s a big stretch of the film that seems to be working really well. On DVD, the mini-DV photography by Ellen Kurras is quite striking, lending a sort of hyper-clarity to things. Damon uses a strange accent in his role, and I found it disconcerting at first, a little distancing, until it became clear just how hard Dela is working to get away from who he was, how much he wants to be someone else. He’s fake from the inside out, and it’s a strong choice that Wayans had to convince Spike to let him try. It reminds me of Nicolas Cage’s PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED performance, a tightrope walk of extremes. He’s affecting as a guy who is floundering in his job, struggling with nagging doubts that maybe he isn’t “keeping it real,” that his shows are too white. There’s also anger there, anger at the boss who has the nerve to call him “nigger” to his face, and Dela has a savage wit that helps him come up with his eventual plan, something Wayans plays very well. I think there are great performances in Damon that simply haven’t been written for him yet, and this is a strong piece of work by him.

On the director’s commentary track on the DVD, Spike openly traces the origins of this film from the seminal A FACE IN THE CROWD (directed by Elia Kazan and written by the great Budd Schulberg) to NETWORK (directed by Sidney Lumet and written by the equally great Paddy Cheyefsky) by way of THE PRODUCERS (written and directed at the height of his greatness by Mel Brooks) and its amazing “Springtime For Hitler” number. By bringing these films up, Spike invites comparison, and I wish his film stood up to it.

Spike has always been distinguished as a storyteller by the sheer force of his digressions. Nobody can waste more time on supporting characters than he can. When Mos Def shows up in the film as Big Black Africa, the brother of Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith), there’s a seemingly endless conversation between the two of them that isn’t necessarily poorly written... it’s just pointless. It’s a debate that doesn’t belong in the film. It’s flabby. Mos Def is surprisingly good, though, and I agree with Lee’s comments about him in the commentary: if Mos ever wants to get serious about acting, he’s got a hell of a career ahead of him. Jada, on the other hand...

Jeez, how do I even start with Jada? I remember at one point, near the end of the film, I turned to Henchman Mongo, who I was watching with. Mongo’s a rabid MATRIX fan, and I said to him, “You do realize you’ve got two whole MATRIX sequels full of this to look forward to, don’t you?” He nearly cried. That’s how bad Jada Pinkett Smith is in this movie. She’s grating. She’s phony. She’s oppressively sincere about everything. Every. Word. She. Says. Is. Important. She does things in the film no assistant would ever do, and even though this is a satire, she’s written so poorly that she ruins the reality of the film for me. She manages to make every scene she’s in feel longer. It’s hard to fully describe the powerful narcotic effect her performance had on me. She’s not doing anything exaggerated like Wayans until the end, at which point she’s called upon to play some scenes so improbably no actor could have looked good, but she still manages to project an entirely plastic, arch persona that I found off-putting from the first time she spoke. I’ve never had much of a reaction to Jada on film before, positive or negative, so I was surprised by just how strong a reaction I had to her work here.

Dela and Sloan bring in two street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) and make them the center of the MANTAN’S NEW MILLENNIUM MINSTREL SHOW. When he pitches the show to Dunwitty, expecting to be fired, the exact opposite happens. This is supposed to be the moment when “Springtime for Hitler” opens and it’s a hit. This is supposed to be where we see it backfire, a major moment, and Spike bungles the sequence. The set does all the work here, as Lee surrounds Dunwitty with images of black athletes and entertainers, a sort of “wall of fame” for African-Americans. Lee uses icons, whether they’re photos or toys or posters or films, as the texture of the film. It's only at the end of the scene that Spike nails it. When Dunwitty gets Manray to jump up on his desk and tapdance as an audition, it’s a degrading image. Savion Glover is, no question about it, an amazing dancer, but there’s something very dehumanizing about the way he’s ordered to dance, about the way the idea develops, the way Dunwitty has all the power in the scene, that cuts some of the balls off of Spike’s concept. Satire is always most pointed when we have the courage to ask the hard questions about themselves. Spike makes every black character in the movie a victim by making sure they never really have any choices here. The fact that I have a DVD of BAMBOOZLED undermines that particular point of Spike’s. He has earned the right to make films that are important to him, and he didn’t do it by making nothing by minstrel shows. Not everyone is powerless. If Dela really was the architect of his own destruction, it would be a more challenging choice.

By the way, I’d just like to say that everything in this article is opinion only, and I have no special expert knowledge of Spike. I say this because I just listened to him chew Amy Taubin of THE VILLAGE VOICE a new asshole on the director’s commentary. He does an impression of her during a phone call where he dialed her up to chew her out over comments she made about him in her BAMBOOZLED review. He also does a pretty wicked Tommy Hillfiger impression earlier in the film. Spike’s one of those guys who really will say anything that crosses his mind. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about him. Believe it or not, I am a fan. The year I moved to Los Angeles, I stood in line at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood for seven hours one day just to be first in line for a booksigning in honor of MO’ BETTER BLUES. Spike’s handlers, a mob of guys who arrived with him and who took over the organization of the line from the bookstore, were puzzled by me, telling me several times how strange it was that I’d waited, specifically because I was white. One of them made a joke about searching me just to be safe. It was obvious that my race was an issue. MTV and ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and a few other camera crews were there, and everything was finally set up for them to let us in.

I was the first one in the door, and as I entered, Spike looked up and said, “Yep, he sure is.” I put my books (DO THE RIGHT THING and MO BETTER BLUES) down in front of him, and as he started to sign, he said, “So, I hear you’ve been waiting all day. Did you want to ask me something?”

Honestly, I didn’t. I just had a day to kill and felt like getting some books signed, but I thought for a moment and finally asked, “When Radio Raheem does the love/hate monologue in DO THE RIGHT THING, is that Radio Raheem paying tribute to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, or is that Spike Lee paying tribute to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER?”

Spike stopped, mid-signature, and stared at me for a minute before he started laughing. “Good question.” He laughed himself out while he finished signing, then handed me the books back. “Radio Raheem doesn’t know who the fuck Robert Mitchum is,” he said with a smile.

So that’s the extent of my personal knowledge of Lee. All my opinions of him are based purely on observation of his art. There are things that Lee does as a filmmaker that drive me nuts, but I don’t think they’re accidental, and I don’t think they’re done without thought. Love him or hate him, Spike Lee is a very particular talent, with a signature style of provocation that he has developed from film to film. There’s his signature shot, an actor on a dolly, standing still, facing directly into the camera, while floating down a sidewalk or through an apartment. There’s the Terence Blanchard score, lovely and powerful. There’s an inventiveness to the photography that evolves from film to film. And there’s the lack of subtlety. And the digressions. And his inability to end a film.

Watching the movie a second or a third time while writing this piece, there is a good deal of the film that I like, and it’s worth seeing once. But this is a rental, not a purchase for most viewers. Dela hold auditions looking for a band to become The Alabama Porch Monkeys, the house band for the show. First up is The Roots doing “Barefoot and Pregnant,” an awesome little funk number. Another singer does a jaw-dropper called “I Be Smackin’ My Hos.” One of the grips on the movie makes a cameo playing a diggeradoo. Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a Spike Lee Joint regular since CLOCKERS, gives an astonishing performance of a self-penned song called “Niggers Is A Beautiful Thing” that reminded me of the powerful Scatman Crothers opening to the Ralph Bakshi film COONSKIN.

Sloan’s brother, Big Black Africa, even comes in with his radical militant rap group, the Mau-Maus. I have to admit, I got really excited when I recognized Poet from the HBO series OZ as part of the band. Cannibus, MC Serch, Charlie Baltimore and DJ Scratch are also members of the band, and they’re good. Everyone in the audition sequence is good. If Spike’s point here is that there’s a lot of untapped potential in the African-American artistic community, then I agree. There’s a lot of untapped potential in the white artistic community, too, though, and if anyone’s in doubt of that, I’d be happy to show them my bank book this month.

Dela loses control of the show right away, with the hiring of a white Finnish director, chosen for his visual style, valued far more than any sense of cultural integrity. There’s a fair amount of material Spike cut from the film, and watching the extra footage on the disc, I feel like Spike made some terrible choices. He lost some of his most savage moments, some of the things that really sting, in favor of emphasizing a lame romantic entanglement storyline or his patently absurd ending. He rushes through the development of the show, and almost immediately, they’re taping the pilot. The scenes of Glover and Davidson backstage, preparing for the show, making their own burnt cork blackface makeup, are powerful, the soul of the film in some ways. You can’t argue with this. This is an image from our past, brought back and rubbed in our faces at a time when we think we’ve left that sort of stereotyping behind. Making subtext text is the movie’s most effective weapon, and all the talk in the world is no preparation for the sheer visceral impact of them in blackface, no longer Manray and Womack, but transformed now into Mantan and Sleep’n’Eat. It’s as they finish the applications for the first time that they look in the mirror and, in ruined unison, intone “It’s show... time!”

Which brings us full circle, back to the Eddie Murphy vehicle I mentioned at the top of the review. Admittedly, this is an earlier draft than what they’re shooting now. Hell, I’m not saying it’s a bad script. I thought what I read was pretty much a guaranteed hit, at least on par with BOWFINGER or MEET THE PARENTS. But I must confess some discomfort with the shtick as written in the script. There were all the old cliches, dressed up with a fairly sharp sarcastic wit, but cliches nonetheless.

Cliches don’t quite explain it, though. SHOWTIME is one of those scripts that wants it both ways. It wants to make ironic comment on a genre, in this case the buddy cop film, but it also plays by all those same lame rules. BAMBOOZLED at its best asks the question, is it okay to use sterotype, even for ironic effect? Who owns culture? Who gets to use images and say how they're used? These questions are important to ask when comments from prominent Jewish leaders can keep an award-winning film like THE BELIEVER from getting distribution just because they're not happy with it. Is it okay to perpetuate a cliché, even if you’re making comment on it? Is it, in fact, important to revive these images from time to time to remind ourselves of how we can dehumanize each other with art? Are MARTIN or HOMEBOYS FROM OUTER SPACE or two-thirds of the comedians on DEF COMEDY JAM really any different from the minstrel performers and shows of the past? Just because you get more sophisticated about racism, isn’t it still racism?

These are all important things, worth talking about, and even that would make BAMBOOZLED worth seeing once. This should have been a great film, though. The pilot for the MANTAN show is brilliant, and it’s some of Spike’s strongest satirical writing ever. He manages to be both totally offensive and very subversive. He really nails it here, and none of the material in the rest of the film manages to walk that same edgy line. The really fiendish thing about the first episode is just how entertaining it is. The choreography by Savion Glover or the music by The Roots or the comic performance of Tommy Davidson... these all work together perfectly, and even through our shock at the material, it’s possible to marvel at the performances themselves.

I wish BAMBOOZLED didn’t spiral out of control pretty consistently after the show goes on the air and becomes a hit for CNS. I wish Paul Mooney was in the film for a reason and not just another pointless character digression. I wish Spike hadn’t cut out material like Mantan’s live appearance at the Apollo Theater, where he does blackface on that stage, dressed as a crow for extra added effect. I wish the ending wasn’t quite so in love with NETWORK, or I wish Spike was a good enough writer to pull off the SUNSET BOULEVARD homage he’s reaching for. I wish a lot of things about this film, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. I know because I’ve been told this by Famous Black People in the documentary on the DVD. Clyde Taylor, historian, is the first person we see, and he makes the case that this is Spike’s best movie because it is important. I hate this argument in a movie’s defense... any movie. Subject matter alone is not enough.

Stanley Crouch talks about BAMBOOZLED as one point in the evolution of Spike Lee, and he’s right. Spike has always been deeply concerned with issues of race, and he’s said things over the years that I consider straight up ignorant. But he’s also said things I think are important, and he’s made films that I consider crucial. Any time you spend most of your public energy talking about issues as difficult and divisive as race, you’re bound to stumble and say things that you may regret as you get older. Hell, I bet if you look back at the Talk Backs under Harry's very enthusiastic review of the film, you'd see comments made by some of our own TalkBackers that they might regret with a window of just a few months' perspective, as well as some worth being proud of. There were some great arguments in that particular Talk Back, and any film that can elicit some of the smart, procovative conversation this one does is definitely of some merit. As long as someone like Spike who has such a public forum continues to grow in his attitudes, and as long as he's smart enough to let his experiences continue to shape his for the better, then I can accept his art, flaws and all. I may not like BAMBOOZLED in the end, and I may not think it will stand the test of time as a satire of real worth, but as a snapshot of where this always-provocative artist is at the moment, it’s fascinating, and any serious fan owes it to themselves to check this disc out.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • April 19, 2001, 5:18 a.m. CST

    Bamboooooozled

    by bobis111

    it was pretty good, but i agree, the narrative weaknesses just weight it down without and make it hard to swallow...good review

  • April 19, 2001, 6:40 a.m. CST

    Just out of curiousity...

    by BoskoBoy

    ...what was the underlying subtext when Beetlejuice used the same line? Does it betray the undead's natural desire to entertain? Makes you think.

  • April 19, 2001, 7:39 a.m. CST

    Dancing in September

    by Benet1019

    There has been a great deal of discussion about blacks in film/television (esp with the release of the book PrimeTime Blues), but HBO's Dancing in September seems to have flown right under the radar - and that is one of the best commentaries on blacks in TV that I've seen. Did anyone else see this?

  • April 19, 2001, 9:06 a.m. CST

    Author/Directors

    by darth kubrick

    When I think of Spike Lee I think of Kevin Smith. Great indepentdent creators with a lot to say, but trouble in the execution. Smith's films are wordy and often visually clumsy. Lee's films are often beautifully shot but fuzzy on the ideas. For example (I just watched the DVD, too) during the writer's meeting all the young white writers are talking about their experiecnes with black people. They begin to mention sit-coms like 'The Jeffersons' and 'Good Times'. They embarrassingly immitate George Jefferson and J.J. Walker and as each show is mentioned, a quick scene from each appears on screen. The combination of Sherman Hemsley's black caricature intercut with a white person doing an awful, stereotypical impression of the actor seems pretty damning. But at that moment on the commentary track Lee says something like: "Now, I'm not saying anything against 'The Jeffersonss' or 'Good Times'. Come on! You can't indict hundreds of years of slavery and abuse and then excuse the modern sit-com equivilant of the minstral show in the form of shows like those. Spike clearly wants to have it both ways. Say what he wants but not piss off every black person he knows. I would have also liked to see what the film would have been like without all the disconnected imagery like the photos on the wall, the cuts to the sit-coms, to the stills from the 68 Olympics and to his own 'Malcolm X'. A story like this has to stand on its own, or perhaps it needs to be told another way. This is a flawed piece overall with much to say, but with a miscast conclusion.

  • April 19, 2001, 9:23 a.m. CST

    Mos Def's Got skills

    by Evil E

    If anyone watched the Cosby Mysteries that ran on A&E a couple years ago, he was Cosby's apprentice, kind of his right hand man. And though I'm sure the character wasn't a huge stretch for him, he definitely has a natural screen presence, and I think if he was given a bigger part, he could handle it. Kinda like how Will Smith made the switch, except I don't think Mos is as comedically inclined. Also if you haven't already, check out his music ("Black on both Sides" and "Blackstar" w.Talib Kweli, both modern day classics), I think he's prolly the best MC out there right now.

  • April 19, 2001, 1:43 p.m. CST

    Complex as hell

    by Eppy

    I'd argue that any parody that gets a majority of bad reviews saying "confused" or "flawed" or "wants to have it both ways" absolutely suceeds as a parody. The point of parodying something is to show the complexity of it, not the straightforwardness, and if nothing else Bamboozled does this. I'd take issue with your claim that the black characters are all victims, Moriarity: Man-Tan, for one, clearly realizes what he's becoming and stays with it nevertheless. Sure, the system screwed him, but his partner walks out, and if nothing else this shows that there are choices. Delacroix was never forced into making this atrocity; the ending clearly shows his own acceptance of responsibility for it. You have to take responsibility for your ideas, no matter how good your intentions were. I also think there's a good deal of parody of the black community going on here, regardless of what Lee says on the commentary track; if not, what's the Rev. Al Sharpton doing there? What does it say that the Roots dress up like porch monkeys? As for the ending, I think what it slips into--a sort of soap opera--is HIGHLY ironic and not meant to be taken seriously at all. "This is what you want to see, right?" Lee refuses to give us the easy ending, to "leave us laughing." The final few moments are absolutely astounding: the montage, and Dela's absolutely mind-twisting chorus of laughter as he lays on the floor, dying. Lee makes us uncomfortable and refuses to give us the easy way out. When it's good, comedy is NEVER about release.

  • April 19, 2001, 3:05 p.m. CST

    Jeez, You Guys Are Young!

    by precode

    That business of saying "It's showtime!" goes at least as far back as Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ (Roy Scheider says it into the bathroom mirror every morning), and it probably didn't even originate there.

  • April 19, 2001, 9:56 p.m. CST

    AfroSheen, the link you posted kicks ass.

    by Dave_F

    No idea how it relates to this Talkback, but folks should follow it anyway!

  • April 21, 2001, 4:49 p.m. CST

    racism

    by Laimbrane

    I apologize if I come off uninformed, but isn't saying "this is a damn unbiased and forward thinking review for a white guy" racist? Say that sentence again, but replace it with "black guy". Sounds a lot worse, huh? Now, perhaps you are just saying this as your own little satiricial quip, but I've heard this type of thing before from black individuals. I get confused sometimes when minorities say racist things such as that that aren't criticized, as if minorities have some sort of right to be racist. I thought we were searching for equality. I just don't get it anymore.

  • April 22, 2001, 11:14 a.m. CST

    The Hillfiger Parody

    by TheMatarife

    Was one of the funnies things I've ever put down on film. I went to see this opening night, and I swear, every single person in the theater was almost in tears laughing, even this grandmother in the row behind us. The malt liquor commercial was also hillarious.