”Love it or hate it, you can’t disagree that Bamboozled is a landmark American film.” That’s rapper Mos Def, speaking about a work billed, in its least act of audacity, as ”a spectacular new film by Mr. Spike Lee.” As a costar, Mos Def has a vested interest in the movie’s relevance, but when it comes to the 40-acre plot of thought space that Lee plows in this omnidirectional media critique, who doesn’t?
I certainly do. This dark farce about a black TV writer who creates the demonically offensive hit Mantan The New Millennium Minstrel Show ripped me open and moved me with its low-down blues, left me sweaty and all worked up. Its wrenching weirdness — shots of Savion Glover tap-dancing sublimely while smeared with burnt-cork blackface grosser than excrement, a fusillade of the most virulently racist images of 20th- century pop — pierced me with a plain truth I’d considered only abstractly before: that our culture is formed and informed by a national unconscious where the showbiz axiom ”Keep ’em laughing” and the street maxim ”Keep it real” each shade into the message glimpsed in a nightmare by the hero of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man: ”Keep this nigger-boy running.”
I say this all as a middle-class black guy who, in a quarter century of heavy media consumption, has felt pride, love, and excitement at the images of American blackness beaming from the screen or booming from the speakers. But I’ve also felt confusion, fear, and self-loathing; Bamboozled, acutely, made me feel why. I say this as a kid who was never allowed to watch TV’s ghetto lampoon Good Times or anything of its kind. ”The blaxploitation movie era happened,” my mother recently explained in an email. ”And I came away feeling that nothing I saw reflected anything that was real about my life or black culture as I understood it, and I was ashamed.”
It doesn’t take an Ivy League scholar to see that Bamboozled‘s satire of TV is on target, but… ”If you go back and look at some of the minstrel shows, definitely Amos ‘N’ Andy was part of that tradition,” says Alvin Poussaint, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who used to screen scripts for The Cosby Show. ”Even Good Times and The Jeffersons have things in common with [them].” Consider the experience of Tommy Davidson, a Bamboozled costar who’s also an alumnus of TV’s In Living Color: ”I’ve been pitching television shows for the last six years…. The studios constantly push me in a certain direction — urban poor, shuck and jive.”
This summer, Scary Movie, Shaft, Big Momma’s House, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Lee’s own The Original Kings of Comedy — all starring black performers — have collectively grossed an astounding half-billion dollars, while sometimes leaving me, and hardly me alone, uneasy. Of Big Momma’s House (wherein Martin Lawrence goes undercover Aunt Jemima-style), film historian Donald Bogle says, ”Today, we sit through a whole movie with that kind of character because we know that it’s Martin Lawrence underneath. But it still feeds this image to the public.” Bogle, like others, was more disturbed by the spiritually endowed death row inmate — a sort of happy slave figure — played by Michael Clarke Duncan in 1999’s The Green Mile. I’ll be interested to see the upcoming Legend of Bagger Vance, in which Will Smith (whose wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, is Bamboozled‘s female lead) plays a caddy. A mystical caddy.