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Bamboozled poster
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Bamboozled

Starring Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson and Michael Rapaport
Written and Directed by Spike Lee
website: www.bamboozledmovie.com

IN SHORT: Brilliant satire. The best work of Spike Lee's career. [Rated R for strong language and some violence. 135 minutes]

In Bamboozled, a desperate television network decides to produce the most controversial programming it can imagine. What it imagines is the "Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show," featuring African-Americans in blackface makeup, singing and dancing with exaggerated accents and joking in low brow humor. The characters are lazy and shiftless. They live in a watermelon patch and steal chickens-- but man, can they sing and dance (backed by live band The Alabama Porch Monkeys and a backing pickaninny chorus featuring Aunt Jemima, Topsy, Jungle Bunny, Sambo, Rastus and Li'l [n] Jim.

I can hear millions of short hairs rising up on the backs of necks all around the 'net. The story continues . . .

All this is perfectly fine for modern day teevee viewing because the show was pitched by an African-American to a white executive with an African-American wife. While the former expects a ratings disaster -- the better to get his own work on the air -- "Mantan" turns out to be a phenomenal success, and therein lies the root of Spike Lee's comic satire Bamboozled, a movie so sharp that buttons are going to be pushed all across the racial spectrum. So, we're going to talk seriously for a bit before we get into heavy duty film analysis. Cranky doesn't write essays too often. Bear with me.

The purpose of comedy is to make you laugh. The purpose of satire is to poke holes in pomposity or, when it is really well done, make you sit up and think about why you are reacting to what you see in the manner in which you are reacting. That's where the comedy aspect comes in. Satire is a sneaky little monkey . . .

That last sentence, viewed in the proper historical manner with the correct set of blinders on, is a very racist statement. If it only brings to mind the sight (seen many times in old films) of a big Italian guy behind a grinder's organ with a monkey stealing peanuts, it isn't a racist statement at all . . . unless, perhaps, you are Italian. Or, perhaps, if you're African-American, in which case the reference has an entirely different meaning. How did you react?

For those that are too young to know what blackface came to represent, it's because most of the modern media images have been wiped off the face of the earth. Blackface originated in 19th century minstrel shows in the Deep South. White singer/dancers would burn cork, use the residue to darken their faces in a parody of what slaves looked like and then hit the stage with exaggerated accents and mannerisms. It was, by then current standards, incredibly popular, spreading to the circuit that became vaudeville and from there to the radio and the movies.

Was it intentionally vicious and demeaning? We can't speak for the standards of 1900 or 1920 or 1940. Every immigrant minority took its turn in the media stocks but, if your skin color was close enough to Caucasian, you could get by with a name change and some work on your accent. In a minstrel show, everybody but the Massa and the Sheriff had corked faces and big red lips. They looked like clowns and their characters were all lazy and shiftless thieves who lived on plantations, feasted in the watermelon patch and weren't happy unless they were singin' or dancin' or servin' Massa. The physical stereotype (like the watermelon eatin' pickaninny in the poster at the top of this page) was merchandised in toys and banks and games and all kinds of products. Moreso than the minstrel show, what now is a collectibles market in these things documents what can only be looked at as sick and twisted and vicious and demeaning and racist thinking. You'll see all these "toys" by the end of Bamboozled as well.

CONTINUED>

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