I'll say this for Spike Lee: He knows how to find the pressure points in our country's centuries-long struggle with race. And at his best, he knows how to use those pressure points to fashion thought-provoking dramas that touch a nerve rather than massage our tired egos. He's a firebrand, and that has often gotten in the way of his art in the past. But there are times--Do the Right Thing is the best example--when you sense that not even Lee knows exactly what he thinks about a subject. And that's when he flirts with greatness. Bamboozled, which Lee wrote and directed, is about as provocative a movie as you're likely to see this year. And though Lee doesn't always have firm control over his material, that only strengthens our sense of a monstrous evil released from the Pandora's box of American history. Call it Afterbirth of a Nation. Enough time has finally gone by that many people today haven't even heard of the minstrel shows that were once the hallmark of American entertainment. Flourishing in the decades before and after the Civil War but lingering well into the 20th century, these traveling variety shows featured whites in blackface, and they perpetuated stereotypes that have haunted American culture to this day: the shuffling coon, the smiling mammy, the hysterical pickaninny. From Stephen Foster to Al Jolson and beyond, white entertainers fed off this brutally distorted look at plantation life. For white audiences, it was a chance to indulge their conflicted feelings about blacks, who both fascinated and disgusted them. Not that whites understood how disgusted they were. For them, it was like watching an episode of "Hee-Haw." In Bamboozled, Lee imagines that minstrelsy, after lying quietly in its grave for at least a half century, comes squirming back to life in the form of "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show," a television program that was designed to offend everybody but winds up being embraced by the entire country, blacks and whites alike. Sporting an accent that will surely baffle linguists for years to come, Damon Wayans is Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated African American who cooks up "Mantan" as a way of getting fired from a network that craves blackness but never gets around to hiring any blacks. A satire--we know this because Pierre opens the movie by staring into the camera and defining "satire"--Bamboozled goes after the television industry in much the way Sidney Lumet did in 1976's Network, with a sledgehammer. The difference is that Lee lets--maybe he can't help but let--the pieces fall where they may. Shot on video in a style that seems closer to TV than to film, the movie employs all the tricks of Lee's trade: jump-cuts, freeze-frames, a music track that almost eclipses the dialogue, and camera moves that never let us forget this is a Spike Lee Joint. (In some scenes, the camera isn't just a character, it's the lead character.) In the past, Lee's cinematic approach has sometimes made it seem like he just doesn't trust his material. Here, it captures the chaos of a life and a show and a country spinning out of control. At once hard and easy to believe, "Mantan" takes off like a rocket, a ratings phenomenon to rival "Survivor." And Lee lets us figure out for ourselves why this might happen. Is the show so un-PC it's PC? Or is it just un-PC? The minstrel-show excerpts in Bamboozled are at once sad, disturbing and utterly fascinating, not unlike the musical numbers in Cabaret. Except that Lee doesn't even try to make the song-and-dance and comic routines entertaining in contemporary terms, just stages what appear to be actual routines from the "good" ol' days. This gives the excerpts a postmod ambiguity, leaving us wondering whether we're supposed to find it all offensive or "offensive"--reality or reality in quotes. When you see Sambo and Jemima and all the rest lined up on the front porch of a slave's shack, tap-dancing to beat the band (the band in question being the "Alabama Porch Monkeys"), your first instinct is to avert your eyes. But you can't, because you feel like you're seeing the distilled essence of what black entertainers have been up against from the very beginning: Put on a good show...or else. Unlike many historical minstrel shows, "Mantan" features blacks in blackface, and this both heightens the tragedy and sets us thinking about the various ways minstrelsy has survived in the "new millennium." For Lee doesn't just go after the white elites who run the television industry, he goes after anybody, white or black, whom he deems complicit in the minstrel shows' continuing legacy. Unfortunately, it's not always clear who falls on which side of Lee's racial divide. Was Cuba Gooding Jr., when he did a back-flip upon receiving an Oscar for Jerry Maguire, engaging in the ol' shuck-and-jive? Lee seems to think so. Was "The Jeffersons" a latter-day minstrel show? "Good Times"? "In Living Color"? "The Chris Rock Show"? All are mentioned in a movie that, in its defense, doesn't tell us the answer but at least has the courage to pose the question: Who's bamboozling whom? Alas, Lee doesn't stop there. He also throws in an Original Kings of Comedy-style comedian who, I think, we're supposed to see as someone who's both keeping it black and keeping it real. (It's Pierre Delacroix's father, which just makes Delacroix seem that much more inexplicable.) He also throws in what I'm assuming is a parody of a rap group--the Mau Maus, who spend much of their time arguing over whether to drop the "c" in "black." With Bamboozled, Lee has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. He wanted to swallow and spit back out the entire history of black-style entertainment, but something keeps getting stuck in his throat--the realization, perhaps, that all those black artists over the years who've allowed themselves to be demeaned for the delectation of whites were simply doing the best they could under the circumstances. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle shares this quote from Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel: "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one!" Bamboozled has its own Hattie McDaniel: Mantan, who's played by the reigning king of tap, Savion Glover. (He also choreographed the minstrel-show excerpts.) A surprisingly natural actor, Glover makes Mantan a bit of a simpleton. The poor guy just wants to hoof, and when the movie opens he and his partner (a deft performance by Tommy Davidson) are taking it to the streets, entertaining crowds for small change. Then Delacroix discovers them, and the rest is television history. Instead of Amos 'n' Andy, we get Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat, "two real coons."
Lee does a poor job of showing us when and how Delacroix and his two song-and-dance men realize that the joke's on them. And when they do realize, the whole movie spirals off into cataclysmic nonsense. But before that, Bamboozled wrestles with issues that have plagued us for years and will continue to plague us in the future. What does it mean to be black in a white-dominated culture? Can whites be black too? These questions are so big, so knotty, that not even Lee presumes to know the answers, and that's a good thing. He isn't preaching and teaching as much as he usually does, and he isn't seeing the whole world in terms of black and white. The movie eventually gets away from him and takes on an ugly life of its own, just as the minstrel show gets away from Delacroix. But it's that messiness that helps make Bamboozled one of this year's truly vital movies.