Lee laughs last

BAMBOOZLED, written and directed by Spike Lee, produced by Jon Kilik and Lee, with Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Savion Glover,.


BAMBOOZLED, written and directed by Spike Lee, produced by Jon Kilik and Lee, with Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport and Mos Def. 142 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (October 20). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 77. Rating: NNNN


History will judge Spike Lee. God knows I can’t. Possibly the most infuriating filmmaker working for the major studios — on the basis of Summer Of Sam alone — he cranks out at least a film a year. Most of them take one good idea and bother it to bits. But sometimes, rarely, Spike Lee connects.

Bamboozled is Lee’s best film since Do The Right Thing. It’s an outrageous, courageous cocktail of scabrous wit, clanging assaults and pure, dark rage. I like it. I don’t know what it’ll mean ultimately, but I like it.


Right balance

Lee has been working in the entertainment industry for coming up on two decades, so he’s earned the right to satirize. Satire always grows from a balance of idealism and disgust. It seems Lee has reached exactly the right stage in his career to find that balance. And, like the best satire, Bamboozled hinges on a modest proposal that makes perfect, sad sense.

Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a network television executive badly in need of a hit.

His white boss, Michael Rapaport in his sharpest wigger role yet, demands an end to safe, middle-class black comedies. He wants edge. He wants street. He’s all about keepin’ it real.

So Delacroix dreams up the blackest, edgiest show he can imagine. It’s a minstrel variety show set in a watermelon patch, starring two black entertainers to be named Mantan and Sleep ‘N’ Eat. The house band will be the Alabama Porch Monkeys. The two stars will perform in blackface. If this sounds too extreme to be believed, just tune your TV set to an American channel and wait.

To make his new show work, Delacroix finds two street performers, played by comic Tommy Davidson and tap genius Savion Glover. He gives them their big break, but they’ll have to wear burnt cork to cash in. Not a problem.

The show is a huge hit, blackface becomes the latest craze, and white America breathes a sigh of relief. It’s OK to laugh at black people again, and not just the funny ones.

Bamboozled makes a direct connection between golden-era coon performers like Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit and today’s more grovelling black comedians.

I wonder what Martin Lawrence, who got his first movie role in Do The Right Thing and now makes millions acting the coon, makes of Bamboozled.

But, to be fair, Lee makes sure to skewer all sides. Delacroix’s assistant, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, has a brother who’s renamed himself Big Black.

He leads a colossally stupid crew of “Afrikan” radical hiphoppers, the kind who nod and say “Know whum sayin’?” as if it were Akan wisdom.

Brooklyn rhymer Mos Def plays Big Black, and it’s just one of the many sharp cross-references in Bamboozled.

The film takes a quick little dig at In Living Colour, where Wayans and Davidson both trained. It returns Glover’s strong, elegant tap dancing to the cultural quagmire that once made African-American dance an act of humiliation.


Ethical compromises

And it serves as a chapter in Lee’s unwritten autobiography.

Beyond the race satire, Bamboozled is a film about work. Delacroix needs his job, like most of us, and has to decide what he’ll do to keep it. So do the characters played by Glover and Davidson. So did Mookie in Do The Right Thing.

In fact, making ethical compromises for the sake of job security is a dilemma that confronts lots of Lee’s characters, including the musicians in Mo’ Better Blues and the ballers in He Got Game.

Spike Lee must have been a multi-millionaire for years now, but he still works at a furious pace, churning out features, documentaries, even running a company that makes commercials. Why? It can’t just be the money.


Betray ideals

No, what Bamboozled reveals in Delacroix, and hints at in Spike’s own body of work, is fear. Fear that to entertain is to betray one’s own ideals. Fear that it’s already too late, that the only way out of the hole is to dig deeper and dig faster. Remember, this is the same filmmaker who took the Mars Blackmon character he played in She’s Gotta Have It and made him a pitchman for Nike.

Undoubtedly, Lee is well acquainted with his own petard. To his credit, he allows Bamboozled to explode in all directions, leaving even his own work a target.

Nearly all of Lee’s films feel a bit incomplete and cobbled together, and this is no exception. There are absolutely brilliant scenes where I found myself actually holding my breath. But those moments are often followed by some mediocre bit of business.

And Lee’s directorial tics haven’t evolved much since the early 90s. The famous Spike shot, where he puts the actor on the dolly and moves both through space, is the third shot in this film. It looks needlessly showy, but it does establish the film’s point of view — this will not be seamless drama. It’s too pissed off for that.

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras (I Shot Andy Warhol) shot Bamboozled on digital video, and the pixel buzz both adds to the film’s charge of immediacy and emphasizes its elements of pastiche. Lee has always made his films from the stuff of other films.


Peppers dialogue

Here, he dedicates Bamboozled to Budd Schulberg, who scripted Elia Kazan’s 1957 TV satire A Face In The Crowd. But he also uses a brief bit from his own Malcolm X to hammer home the definition of bamboozled.

He peppers the dialogue with references to real people, and even casts Johnnie Cochrane and Al Sharpton as themselves.

And he ends the film with a brilliant stroke.

Lee is a rhetorical filmmaker, not a dramatic one. His films have always been orations — on interracial romance, on the Brooklyn melting pot, and now, on the tastes of his own audience.

In the end, Spike Lee was born to be a satirist. As that, he’s done his best work with Bamboozled.

cameronb@nowtoronto.com


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