When his bosses at a TV network demand that he come up with a hot, edgy series, the token black executive (Damon Wayans) proposes a minstrel show: a format “so negative, so offensive and racist” that it will prove his point about the lack of ethical or aesthetic standards on TV. He hires as his stars a homeless tap dancer (Savion Glover) and his pal (Tommy Davidson). Renamed Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat, they are given a supporting cast of Topsy, Rastus, Sambo and Aunt Jemima — enough reminders of racism to spur protests from an enraged citizenry. Guess what? The show is a smash. Audience members show up in blackface. The unknowns become stars. America loves Mantan.
One of the coolest things about Spike Lee is his productivity; he makes feature films, documentaries, TV shows and music videos nonstop. He pushes big stars like Denzel Washington (in Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game) and Wesley Snipes (Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues) to do bold, socially pertinent work. But his signature films are those that rankle all viewers; he’s an equal-opportunity annoyer. In Bamboozled, he takes on an entertainment form that died out a century ago but lived on though racial stereotypes (the shiftless, larcenous, strutting Negro with bug eyes) that continued in Hollywood films and black-cast “race movies” through the 1940s. But that’s just a premise Lee uses to condemn whites for manufacturing and buying into that image and, also, blacks for inhabiting restrictive new and polar-opposite categories: the gangsta and the Buppie.
Satire typically proceeds from two impulses: rage at the powerful and contempt for the masses; Lee has both. Bamboozled hits on an important truth in race consciousness: we all have 20/20 vision of the past but it’s the present that blurs. Today, most whites are ashamed of the degrading racist stereotypes paraded in the movies’ first half century. Years from now, blacks may be chagrined to recall that their young men addressed one another familiarly as “Nigger” and chose hoodlums as their cultural gods.