USA 2000

Film still for Bamboozled

Reviewed by Xan Brooks


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

New York City, the present. The only black executive at television network CNS, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is pressurised by his white boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) to devise a new hard-hitting, trend-setting series. Aided by his sceptical secretary Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix dreams up a satirical spoof of the old black-face minstrel shows, which he hopes will backfire on the network in general and Dunwitty in particular. Delacroix recruits two street buskers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), as the stars of his show, renames them Mantan and Sleep'N'Eat and has them black their faces with cork.

Delacroix is taken aback when the series, entitled Mantan - The New Millennium Minstrel Show, becomes a critical and commercial success. Sloan begins an affair with Manray, while Delacroix is lavished with awards. But the minstrel show has its critics, notably New York's black activists and the militant gangster-rap group Mau Mau. Riddled with self-disgust, Manray breaks down before the live studio audience and is thrown off the set by Dunwitty's henchmen. Outside Manray is abducted by Mau Mau who later execute him live on the internet. Grief-stricken, Sloan storms Delacroix's office and shoots him dead.


Spike Lee's Bamboozled takes its title from a Malcolm X speech ("You've been led astray, led amok, you've been bamboozled"). It arrives dedicated to Budd Schulberg, writer of Elia Kazan's 1957 media satire A Face in the Crowd (apparently one of Lee's favourite films). A kamikaze assault on racial stereotyping, the picture polarised opinion in the US, where the internet journal Salon called Bamboozled "a near masterpiece" while prominent film critic Roger Ebert concluded that "Spike Lee has misjudged his material... The power of the racist image tramples over the material and asserts only itself." In a sense, both judgements are valid. Yes, Bamboozled is a picture of genuine importance. Yes, it is also crude, unstable and hazardous. In teasing and taunting the audience, it often ends up bamboozling itself.

On the face of it, Lee's intentions are clear enough. Shot on fuzzy-edged digital video, Bamboozled repackages 100 years of media stereotyping and rams it back down our throats. Significantly, the film bows out with an extended montage from Hollywood's hall of shame (archive footage from Birth of a Nation, 1915; the glimpse of a corked-up Judy Garland; a black-face Bugs Bunny). But its present-day setting drives home the point that little has changed. Lee's broadsides at "Timmi Hillnigger", a pale-faced clothing mogul, and white television network bigwig Dunwitty, the wannabe home-boy who's "keeping it real", hint at an Afro-American culture that's been co-opted and corrupted by the white establishment. More crucially, his Mantan - The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a ghastly exercise in retro-racism - commissioned by black executive Delacroix - in which black-face clowns gambol around a watermelon patch, can only be intended as a one-step-removed satire on mainstream media as a whole. (In recent months Lee has lambasted the depiction of Afro-Americans on primetime television and in such Hollywood pictures as The Patriot, The Family Man and The Legend of Bagger Vance.)

But there is danger here too. For while Lee is intelligent enough to realise that the situation is more complex than a simple them-against-us showdown, he's not quite rigorous enough to force this line of reasoning towards a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. One of the film's key points, for instance, is the way in which black America is at least part-way complicit in its ruin. The first person to applaud the Minstrel Show is a black audience member, while the militant rap act Mau Mau turn against the show only after they've failed an audition to appear on it. Meantime Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans, is revealed to have run from his roots and affected an over-formal diction that annoys his father, an old-style Harlem comedian ("Nigga, where the fuck did you get that accent?"). And yet Wayans' protagonist is left frustratingly vague: a plot pawn, a random mouthpiece. Is he motivated by greed, naivety or a desire to sabotage the system from within? It's never made clear. In acknowledging black culpability, Lee so dazzles himself that his film subsequently loses its bearings.

Judged on sheer voltage and ambition, Bamboozled ranks among the director's finest pictures (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing), while its best spells evoke the pitch and panache of Ralph Ellison's landmark novel Invisible Man - a broad and bawdy call to arms. But the tale finishes up as a fascinating, unresolved tumult. In one key scene, Delacroix is spooked by his "Jolly Nigger Bank", a racist antique which begins feeding itself of its own accord. Bamboozled is a lot like that itself. What we have here is a mischievous cinematic play-thing; at once mocked and mocking, and more than a little out of control. Undeniably it is Lee who lets it out of the box and first sets it moving. But by the end you can't help but wonder whether it is still him who's working the controls.


Spike Lee
Jon Kilik
Spike Lee
Spike Lee
Director of Photography
Ellen Kuras
Sam Pollard
Production Designer
Victor Kempster
Music/Music Conductor
Terence Blanchard
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011