Friday, September 27, 2013

Famous Flops: Bamboozled

This is the latest in my monthly series Famous Flops, where I watch one movie per month that was considered a financial or critical failure and see if it deserved to be so shunned.

When Spike Lee turns off viewers, it can be for one of two reasons: 1) The subject matter is too in-their-face, and they just don't want to pick up what Lee is putting down; 2) The movie is simply poorly made.

Lee does have a few in the second category (She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer), but the ones people remember are the ones that just pushed their buttons in the wrong way.

I knew Bamboozled would be an example of Lee alienating his potential audience through excessively strident commentary, but I wanted to see if it was also a hack job.

Before I tell you what I thought, though, I should let you know why Bamboozled stopped some people from even seeing it in the first place.

Lee's 2000 film is about an Ivy League-educated black television writer who inadvertently revives the minstrel show, a highly racist variety program in which black actors wore blackface and acted the fool for an hour while perpetuating the most pernicious racial stereotypes imaginable.

But see, he was trying to prove a point, and it just went too far.

Damon Wayans portrays Pierre Delacroix, who is tired of the latent racism he must deal with on a daily basis from execs at his network. When they demand that he create a network hit that will appeal to black audiences, he sets out to create the most offensive show he can imagine, envisioning that this gross error in judgment will lead to his immediate firing (and therefore allow him to work at another network without breaching his contract by quitting).

Of course, as must happen in any good satire, the show is unexpectedly greenlit and becomes a huge hit, even turning blackface into a nationwide fad.

And yes, Bamboozled IS a good satire. In fact, I ended up thinking it was sort of great until the last 15 minutes or so, when it downgraded itself to merely very good.

But you can see why the movie turned off critics and audiences alike. It's a fair question to ask whether putting so many of these offensive stereotypes on display, even to discredit them in no uncertain turns, does more damage and gives them more power than if they were permanently marooned in obscurity. I mean, the minstrel show takes place in a watermelon patch, for God's sake.

I come down on the same side it would appear Lee came down on: It's better to confront this ugly history head on, to educate as a way to never repeat, than to pretend none of this ever happened. If you watched Bamboozled and came down on a different side, I guess couldn't blame you.

The one thing I don't want you to do is write it off as a misfire that shouldn't be seen. In order to make this film, Lee had to struggle with many of these same questions himself. And you know it was a struggle. This is a man who stretches to find signs of racism even when most people would agree it's not there. To contribute to the introduction of images of racial hatred that a new generation can't unsee ... it must have damn near killed the man.

Good thing he has so much interesting to say, and handles it so deftly. You can see just how much the elements of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show horrify those involved, and the film is practically brimming with viewer surrogates. If you're not Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson, the prospective stars of the show, giving each other sideways glances during the pitch meeting, or if you're not Jada Pinkett-Smith, Delacroix's assistant, biting her tongue so as not to jump out of her seat, then you're certainly a room full of white television writers, exclaiming in disbelief when notified that the show will be set in a watermelon patch.

What's so deft about Lee's commentary -- before it goes a bit overboard -- is how it shows us how tricky satire can be, both in reference to the Mantan show and to the very film he's making right now. There's a fine line between criticizing something and celebrating it, just as there's a fine line between getting paid by the man, and getting played by him. Lee's movie clearly suggests that some Hollywood actors -- Will Smith actually gets named -- aren't much better than the jive-talking "porch monkeys" seen on the Mantan show, given that their primary value to a movie exec is to be sassy and bring in black audiences. (I would not use the term "porch monkey" myself, except that the Mantan show's outrageous name for its musical accompaniment is The Alabama Porch Monkeys.) Lee points the finger at certain black superstars for being complicit in their own dehumanization, even (and perhaps especially) if they're earning millions of dollars in the process.

So I can see why Bamboozled pisses of big-name black actors, and I can see why it pisses off anyone who is predisposed to hating Lee, but I can't see why it pisses off anyone who likes to struggle with issues of modern racial identity the way Lee struggles with them here. If you want a movie that'll make you think, Bamboozled will do just that.

Before I wrap up, I did want to address the issue of whether Bamboozled was poorly made, from a technical standpoint. At first I thought it might be, or at the very least, that I had to adjust my picture settings on my TV. See, the movie was shot mostly on Mini DV digital video to keep the production costs down. This gives it a grainy look, much rougher than what you'd expect from a seasoned filmmaker. And initially it was displeasing to me.

When I realized that the film's look was a function of the medium in which it was shot -- and that this medium was likely a necessity of having subject matter that couldn't get much financial backing -- I shrugged off the surface aesthetic unpleasantness of it. In fact, Lee makes some interesting stylistic choices with his film stock, using digital video for all the "real" scenes and film for the actual footage of Mantan's show. That choice worked for me.

The whole movie worked for me, really.

In October I'm going to go with a fairly obvious choice, if I can get my hands on it here in Australia: Cutthroat Island, the movie that single-handedly bankrupted Carolco Pictures and effectively ended the careers of Renny Harlin and Geena Davis (though both have continued to work in less prominent capacities).

If I can't get my hands on it, well, it'll be something else.

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