Released in, or rather let loose upon, the first year of the new millennium, Spike Lee’s febrile and ferocious media satire Bamboozled—the fifteenth feature-length “joint” of a prolific career—found its writer-director in an unflinching mode and an unforgiving mood. According to Lee biographer Kaleem Aftab, Bamboozled had been brewing for some time, and its eventual eruption was a product of the filmmaker’s years of frustration with the vagaries of the industry. These included a traumatic experience funding and making his epic Malcolm X (1992); his failure to launch a number of passion projects, such as a Jackie Robinson biopic; and controversies linked to his public persona, including a running feud with Quentin Tarantino based on what Lee perceived as the white director’s overuse of the word nigger in his films, and hostile media representations of him as an Angry Black Man (for the most disgraceful example, see 1992’s Esquire cover story boasting the inflammatory headline “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass”).
Having tackled multiple thorny issues in a prolific decade-plus of filmmaking, from interracial romance (Jungle Fever, 1991) to drugs and gang violence (Clockers, 1995) to sex work (Girl 6, 1996), Lee with Bamboozled revisited the catalyzing themes of his 1989 breakthrough Do the Right Thing: black representation and cultural ownership. In that film, local gadfly-cum-activist Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wonders why there are no “brothers up on the wall”—alongside the framed photographs of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, and Sylvester Stallone—in Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, an Italian American–owned restaurant that thrives on the patronage of its black clientele.
In Bamboozled, Lee turned his attention to brothers up on the screen, and questioned who was really profiting from their work. In interviews surrounding the film’s release, Lee spoke ominously of a contemporary media machine insistent on twisting old negative racial stereotypes into new forms of neo-minstrelsy, particularly in the arenas of gangsta rap, mainstream filmmaking, and TV programming. He cited the ludicrous portrayal of black characters in sitcoms such as the self-explanatory Homeboys in Outer Space (1996–97) and the short-lived, slavery-soft-pedaling The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (1998); and lamented humiliating roles for the black stars of the Hollywood hits The Green Mile (1999)and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000): “If this character [played by Michael Clarke Duncan] has such mystical powers that he can touch Tom Hanks and cure him . . . why can’t he use those gifts to walk out of prison? . . . And what about The Legend of Bagger Vance? . . . Georgia has always been one of the roughest states for black people . . . And if this magical black caddy has all these powers, why isn’t he using them to try and stop some of the other brothers from being lynched and castrated?” Lee vented to Cineaste magazine.
Over Bamboozled’s 136 jagged, pulsating minutes, Lee sublimates this frustration into one of the most truly oddball characters of his career: the African American TV executive Pierre Delacroix, a buppie Icarus whose inadvertent rise and fatal nosedive form the film’s central tragedy. Pierre is a walking affectation, brilliantly played by Damon Wayans with clenched poise, indelible hubris, and a bizarre, clipped accent that, in the character’s mind, presumably signifies sophistication but really sounds more like Kermit the Frog impersonating Sidney Poitier. Delacroix, who, we learn, has changed his name from Peerless Dothan, slots neatly into Lee’s roster of dubious “white-acting” black characters (see also: the finicky Greer Childs from his 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and Wendell, the odious Republican car salesman from 1996’s Get on the Bus). Through the frightening, fun-house-mirror prism of Delacroix—a man so unsure of his own true identity that he effectively bamboozles himself—Lee trains a dark light on the historically hideous misrepresentation of black people by America’s corporate-entertainment industrial complex, the deleterious effects of this misrepresentation on individuals, and the pivotal role in it that we all, as active and passive consumers, perform.
“Lee’s film is set in a recognizable reality ruptured by outrageous events and centered on strange, larger-than-life characters whose shortcomings ultimately serve to illuminate human frailties.”
“A specific and pernicious corollary of Donald Trump’s ascent has been the emergence of grotesque characters who might have walked straight from the set of Lee’s film.”
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