Today, the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled is opening in Austin. If you havent heard about it, its a satire about a black TV executive (overplayed as an effeminate Uncle Tom by Damon Wayans) who, in order to get fired, comes up with the most racist, offensive TV show he can think of: a program called Mantan: The Millennium Minstrel Show. The show becomes a hit and hilarity ensues.
My track record with Spike Lee is pretty mixed. Like everybody else, I thought Do The Right Thing was phenomenal. I wasnt thrilled with Jungle Fever and Summer of Sam was pretty scattered, but Malcolm X showed he could make a competent, effective movie, at least.
This movie is a mix of the best and worst things about Spike Lee. The idea is great: exploring the sins of entertainment past (footage of portrayals of blacks in movies and on TV over he last century shown in Bamboozled is suitably shocking) and then satirizing the current state of entertainment where WB and UPN shows and rap music feed into stereotypes today.
The problem isnt the idea, its Spike himself. He cant make a point without jabbing you in the eye with it. He cant tell you a story without underlining the words in the script and making sure that each strong point is made about six times. If he could stick a bazooka through the screeen and blow the feet off your legs, he'd do it.
I saw the movie last month when I visited Toronto, and the audience greeted it with some nervous laughter in the right moments. But toward the end, it was clear the movie was way too long and that a never-ending montage of racist images from the last two centuries was never going to end. I began to fear that I might never have grandchildren because by the time the movie was over, I would have died of old age.
Spike is a talented filmmaker. Hes got some visual style, hes got things to say, but man, please get an editor for your scripts. Lose some pages. You're not getting paid per minute of film that makes it on screen.
He does bring up some interesting points, though:
Lots of entertainment today is as bad as the minstrel shows of old you can debate with me all you like, but the fact is, it was only a few short years ago that a show called Homeboys in Outer Space made it on the air. And as much as I like a lot of rap out there, the videos feed into the 40s, bitches, gold chained gangsta stereotypes that so many people want to buy into. The sad thing is that rappers who try to break that mold (even Dr. Dre tried to do it with The Aftermath, which tanked) get brushed aside by Eminem, Old Dirty Bastard and anyone else who seems most volatile at the moment. Spikes got a good point here: we dont need to worry that minstrel shows will return because they never really went away. They exist all over TV and the movies as blacks are portrayed as anything but intelligent or dignified. Except for Moesha. Nobody better talk bad about my Moesha.
The reason this entertainment gets made is because we do it to ourselves we struggle with this all the time in the Latino Comedy Project. How much of the stereotypes of Latinos are we spoofing and how many of them are we actually perpetuating by putting them on stage? Weve always said as a group that nothing is off limits to what well poke fun at (weve targeted "coconuts," the Catholic church, George W. Bush and lots of traditional Latino icons like Vicente Fernandez). But sometimes, we wonder if were going too far and whether were contributing to the problem instead of satirizing it. The best thing, though, is that were producing material from our own experiences and viewpoints. It reflects our brand of humor and what we find funny about our own culture. Its a lot harder for out of work minority actors who dont have the financial freedom to turn down the drug lord or prostitute roles offered to them. Spike blames the entertainers themselves for not seeing through the ghettoized roles offered to them, but unfortunately, turning down work is just not a luxury most writers or actors have.
A modern day minstrel show, complete with blackface, would be a hit the show in the movie is so dated and the jokes are so terrible, that no one in the audience I saw it with laughed once at anything presented on the fictional Mantan show. But in the movie, the audience hoots and giggles and loves every minute. Such a show would never make it, but I bet a show like it could definitely succeed. South Park revels in its offensiveness. Jackass is all about showing how gross and disgusting a bunch of guys with videocameras can be. We as a culture thrive on entertainment that pushes our button and pisses us off. Now, I love South Park and Jackass, but theyre not far removed from a no-limits show that is as entertaining as it is openly hateful and racist. Mr. Wong on icebox.com has its moments of hilarity, but theres no disguising that its meant to offend.
Digital video is the future Spike Lee uses digital video in Bamboozled, and it looks just terrible. The colors are washed out, everything looks grainy and all the edges look jagged. It works on movies that are supposed to be handheld, like Dancer in the Dark, but please, Spike, I know it costs more, but could you please use some regular film in your next movie? Or at least wait until the technology makes the video look a little better? I was starting to get a headache, and not just from Damon Wayans' accent.
The best thing I can say about Spike is that he brings up issues and hes not afraid to make a whole overwrought movie exploring them. Spike suffers from Oliver Stones disease: he lacks the subtlety gene that would actually make his movies stronger and his points more digestible. Spike would argue that he has to jam this stuff in your face because theres no other way to present something so offensive. But satirists, true satirists, use other tools than blunt force.
I desperately want Spike to make a great film, because buried in all the muck and length of Bamboozled is a very sharp hour-and-fifteen-minute film that Spike Lee could have pulled off.
Spikes got some really great films inside of him. Unfortunately, this one gets buried under its own weight.
Latest Third Watch recap is up on Mighty Big TV. Check it out. Also wanted to mention that Mighty Big TV got an "A" in Entertainment Weekly and was featured in Rolling Stone in the same week. And Fametracker also got props in Entertainment Weekly. Congrats to the Über team.
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Have a great weekend!