Bamboozled (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Movie Recipe: Springtime for Sambo. 

Have you seen the classic Mel Brooks comedy, "The Producers"? In that film, two producers sell out thousands of percent of a Broadway show. Given that premise, if the show makes money, they are screwed, but if the show closes immediately, they keep the unspent money and fly to Rio by the Sea-o. In order to execute the scheme, they must create a guaranteed loser - the most offensive show ever conceived - Springtime for Hitler, a musical love poem to Nazism.

The "Bamboozled" idea is similar. An educated black writer is called on the carpet by his network because audiences don't want to see his uplifting stories about sophisticated, prosperous black people just being human. The network demands that he develop something that will score some ratings. He knows what they really mean. He has to develop a "coon show" - a show in which black people are demeaned for the entertainment of large white audiences. He decides to do exactly what they tell him to do, and more. He is determined to create the ultimate offensive show, the black version of Springtime for Hitler. He calculates that he can get out of his contract by creating a catastrophic failure, a retro minstrel revue with blackface and tap dancing that takes place in locations like a watermelon patch and a chicken coop. The characters have names like Sleep 'n Eat, Aunt Jemima, and Sambo. 

This should guarantee his coveted failure, and the symbols should be completely offensive to every one, black or white.

But they aren't. 

Through a concatenation of circumstances, The New Minstrel Show becomes a hit (as did "Springtime for Hitler"), and the rest of the movie shows the effect on audiences of both races, and the members of the cast, crew, and network.


 Spike Lee had a great idea here, and there are flashes of brilliance that show what the film might have been:
  • There are some very powerful moments on the dramatic side, especially when Lee showed the effect of the show on the people, black and white, who created it and star in it or have to justify it.
  • There is a Malt Liquor commercial and a clothing commercial that are scathingly funny, and several alternate versions in the DVD deleted scenes.
  • Lee collected and presented a compendium of racist images from the segregated years. I got an education in the deprecatory symbols that used to be sold in the Five-and-Dime of every small town in America. Lee collected not only the artifacts, but many film clips from the movies and cartoons of the era. Watching those moments, seeing those artifacts, and hearing black actors talk matter-of-factly about the "jolly nigger bank" was horrifying and embarrassing and touching. 
  • The main character - a tap dancer - grows in the course of the film. At first he's a simple guy, a guy who just wants to dance, and doesn't care what he has to do to get his chance. He doesn't know anything about the history of black/white relations, and the symbolism is pretty much lost on him. As time goes on, he starts to see why he is making a mistake, but his revelation comes too late, and he becomes the film's only likeable male character, and its most tragic one.

The film cuts very close to the bone, and is very cynical about the mainstream white American audience. That was on the cutting edge, but I think the film fell down in some ways:

  • It couldn't decide on a consistent tone. Is it a comedic satire? Damn, I don't think so, because the situations have a certain too-realistic underpinning. Yes, there are satirical elements of course, and some laughs, but the film is really a serious historical polemic and a serious drama masked as satire. The historical reminders served to undercut the comedy. There is only so far one can go with reality in a comedy. Would "Springtime for Hitler" have been funny if it took place at Auschwitz? I don't think even Mel Brooks could have pulled that off. 
  • I don't believe Damon Wayans was a sensible casting choice. I think they would have been better off making this role real and believable and conflicted, and hiring a sophisticated black guy to play a believable Harvard grad, instead of letting Wayans do the role with his silly "trying to sound white" voice. Wayans is a really funny man, but this was almost a completely unfunny role, even if the film did have humorous elements. Think about it. This is a guy who tried to create a show that would get him fired, and instead created a hit. In doing so, he created a lot of pain for black people, destroyed his own credibility, and ended up shot to death. Does Wayans sound like the right guy to you? It could have been a great character if the actor had the right dramatic chops.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • a "making of" documentary

  • more than a dozen deleted scenes

  • The trailers, an animated art gallery, and a music video

  • Although the art and set direction is very impressive in its way, the movie itself looks like it was filmed with a camcorder.
  • You have to make a satire either believable or surreal. Which was this? Not surreal, because some characters are deeply grounded in reality. Not believable - would this fictional Minstrel Show really become a hit? I don't think there's any chance it would ever get past the concept stage, not even if masked as deep satire. The film got trapped vacillating between the real world and the bizarro world. 
  • The minstrel numbers occupy too much screen time. When we first see the racist images, they are both funny and effective. Show them to us and then move the plot forward, or show them in montage, but don't show us 12 minutes of that schtick in real time.

The movie just doesn't click, never finds the right voice. It's an interesting film, though, with a lot of brilliant moments, and you wish he could have taken this brilliant concept, worked on it longer, and had it more polished before he started to yell "action". I don't believe that Lee understands the word "subtle". A little subtlety would have worked wonders with this movie.

I appreciate that Spike Lee is an innovator, and is willing to say what people don't want to hear, and I generally agree with his points. He's tough and honest and uncompromising, and we need that kinda guy, but I believe he needs to find the right voice to carry his message. After all, a film director is really supposed to be about the voice first, the message second. If I just wanted a sermon, I'd choose another location besides a movie theater.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two stars across the board. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 2/4,  Maltin 2/4. 

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. Many critics did like it. 55% positive overall, 50% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.4 
  • A box office failure, with only $2 million domestic gross.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is impossible to rate. It is a historical lesson, a comedy, and a drama? It is not an especially funny comedy, but has some powerful dramatic moments, and is a good historical lesson. I guess a C, for lack of a better choice.

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