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So, consider the fact that, forty years since Amos and Andy went off the air, we've raised several generations of kidlets who have no idea of what blackface was. As television demographic targets grow tighter and narrower, as humor becomes more base, it is not an outrageous concept to think that some teevee show could bring back blackface. How close did the UPN come when it tried to use slavery as the basis for a sitcom? After all, says writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) to Continental Network Systems programming honcho Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) "all [Mantan] is is singing and dancing and skits. Just like In Living Color."
In real life, of course, Wayans was one of the stars of In Living Color. By the time he's done, Spike Leewill turn the pointy blade of satire at himself as well as celebrities such as Ving Rhames and Diana Ross and Cuba Gooding Jr.; at gangsta rap styles and the middle class white kids who wish they were poor black gangstas; at television programming ideas and the ordinary folk who build fads and trends; at seemingly de rigeur protestations by Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran. In short, Lee shreds the last hundred years of American cultural history, black and white. And he does it in brilliant form.
As we asked Spike Lee in his Cranky Critic® StarTalk, "is something racist if a generation of people have no idea that it's racist?" Similarly, would it not be a racist thing to say that only a black director would be able to get away with this? To be quite honest, a lot of people will do what some of the critics that saw this film alongside of Cranky did. They walked out.
They did not miss the transformation of homeless street dancers Manray (Savion Glover) and his sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson) into blackfaced teevee stars renamed ManTan and Sleep 'n' Eat. Mantan has no concept of what the makeup means. All he wants, he says, is "to do some hoofin' and make some loot." Womack, on the other hand, is in tears when the makeup goes on. The minstrel show recreated for the big screen, complete with all the characters listed above and master emcee Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is a jaw dropper. It is not caricature. It goes far beyond cartoon. It is truly offensive stuff and it was considered perfectly acceptable, even an artform, when originally presented.
They did miss the underlying point of the movie -- stereotypes and stereotypical attitudes never fade away. They just change clothes and dialect. Burnt cork and white gloves give way to do-rags and gold chains. Yassuh Massuh, suh becomes [expletive deleted].
What kicks us into satire is the positive reaction to the show (in its teevee universe, as noted above). If Bamboozled was only the story of a black teevee exec doing a minstrel show we could flush the thing and forget its existence. But it is more. It is as much a story of reactions -- radio host Gary Byrd, Cochran and Sharpton -- as anything else. How Delacroix right hand "man" Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) reacts to the success of this "crazy" idea and how it transforms her boss; of her relationship with ManTan and his slow but steady raising of consciousness; of the vow to do something to stop the show by Sloan's gangsta rapper brother Big Blak Africa (Mos Def) and his group, the Mau-Mau's -- who actually audition for the show!
The hardest thing
to do, for most of us I'd hope, is to shut down the gut emotional reaction to
seeing the minstrel shows. That's a helluva lot harder than it sounds. If you
get past it and make it all the way through you'll see, at minimum, a nomination
worthy performance by Savion Glover.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Bamboozled, he would have paid...
The actual experience of seeing what was once considered an entertainment art jivin' off a big screen is very difficult to anyone who has any knowledge of what they're seeing. Our jaw dropped more than once. Once we were able to shut out just how offensive the material is, which is incredibly offensive, we saw a close to brilliant motion picture. Bamboozled gets a bit clumsy as it tries to make its final points but we'll leave that for you to discover and decide.
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