After his passion play exploded and perfected itself circa 1989 with the sublime muck-raking journalism of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s inimitable style, while typically expressive, developed a tendency to crash into the realms of the expressly overwrought and the tangled, even by the standards of a polemicist. Qualms aside though, his films seldom dipped below the realm of inspiration, but that didn’t keep Lee from grasping for mainstream success. Pigeon-holed even though he didn’t deserve to be – his ‘90s output is a rainbow, a prism, of different, improbably variegated points of tonal and conceptual ingress to the subject of race – the ‘00s saw him on a vision quest for public acceptance, which unfortunately meant curtailing his polemical tendencies, excising race, or at least reducing it to the ghetto of the subliminal or implicit realm. The fruits of this shift were among his sharpest works – 25th Hour, Inside Man – but also among his more manicured and thus easily digestible, perhaps too judicious in their careful, almost ginger treatment of themes when Lee’s natural inclinations are for the dangerous.
Perhaps the linchpin of the shift was 2000’s Bamboozled, the commercial misfire that wrecked his reputation, serving as fuel for people who felt he was a one-trick race-baiting pony who sacrificed nuance and clarity for untidy, convoluted craziness. Surely, Bamboozled most certainly is definitively untidy and convoluted, but critics may be missing the forest for the trees. Lee’s anger stoked rather than withdrawn, Bamboozled elevates racism to the realm of the deliberately grotesque, without sacrificing or obfuscating the subcutaneous biome either; as a mess, it is an elucidation of a conflict that can only be satisfyingly confronted through the lens of the untidy.
Rather than his typically florid, fashionista sensualism (and Lee is above all a wonderful aesthetic sensualist), he shoots Bamboozled in a gutter of digital video, sanding down the visual flamboyance of the picture and erecting a particularly hamstrung, grisly world excised of beauty. He shoots the film, essentially, as though it were a gross, ungainly, bargain-basement television show produced without an iota of thought or stylistic charge, perishing the thought that the blackface that runs amok within the film ever should channel any sort of sensual pleasure. Maybe the punchy digital is merely a pass at “but this is the real story” shenanigans, but Lee is too challenging an artist to limit himself to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Instead, the look suggests the film addressing its own untidy grubbiness and guerilla style amateurism, resulting in a confrontational scrawl of images unmanicured in their aesthetic as if to cross-examine this film’s own existence within the very anti-artistic corporate structures it critiques. And its own existence as a haphazard sketch of an argument rather than the full package.
Certainly, protagonist Pierre (Damon Wayans) is no easily clarified, complete creation. Played by Damon Wayans in the most archly, flagrantly affected demeanor imaginable, Pierre is a writer for a TV network who, fed up with the cultural continuation of subcutaneous minstrelsy in American culture, writes a most heretical racism theme park of a show for his boss, a casual racist played by Michael Rapaport with demented charisma, in hopes of being fired. When the boss positively magnetizes to the show, it’s produced, gifted with two black entertainers (played by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) who shuck, jive, and “yes’um” with the best of them, and becomes an instant smash with the public audience. The aftershock sends Pierre into an infectiously disfigured downward spiral of self-interrogation, rage, and conscientious confusion about his place in America, and what America wants to do with him.
And, for better and ill, the film is adamant about crumbling with him, swiveling on the spur of the moment from voiceboxing racial acrimony to hurling sonic firepower in the form of curated tunes from Lee’s boombox of choice (Public Enemy and the like). Willfully disobedient, even to the point of failing to sediment its characters’ internal logics, this is a manifest of inconsistencies and invective, a smash-and-bang, structureless mess where characters slide from front-and-center to the frayed sidelines within seconds of each other. Lee’s attitude toward Pierre alone is a nearly unclassifiable. One minute, the film is a wonderful riot act where the character’s father (Paul Mooney, a Lee idol) berates him for Pierre’s stuck-up bona fides and for the performative white face he maintains through harshly clipped, nasal timidity in his voice, erecting a passive, unthreatening exterior for whites. In other scenes though, Lee empathizes with Wayans’ semi-awful portrayal of caricatured whiteness, roughly extending an argument that successful African-Americans don’t have any other channel to pursue besides caricaturizing themselves in one way or another; the character, a visualization of double consciousness shifting back and forth between identities until he can’t even place himself on the map, dons a face that Lee remains skeptical of, if not to the fire-and-brimstone extent of his blackface critique.
Admittedly, understanding the film’s messiness through the lens of double-consciousness requires some groundwork, probably too much, for the viewer, many of whom must take the film out for a walkabout to discover the forceful chaos underneath the riotous accident of missing plot threads and seemingly atonal, almost stuttering identities that initially feel slipshod in their muddy construction. An irregular jumble, or a free spirit if you prefer, Bamboozled caters to no one’s message but its own, and even then, I’d be hard pressed to assume the film knows what its message is. Parlaying a head-on blitzkrieg into an elusively confusing onslaught of mysteries and bedeviling contortions of theme, this film is all about the minutiae of tangents and random incisions of chaos even as it pretends to aim right for the dead-center. Which is again, something of a purpose in itself in a risky paradox of a picture, raging while stumbling around to unpack its rage; the way it crystallizes its argument in oppressive obviousness but still finds itself adrift in the complications and contradictions in its seemingly straightforward argument is an embodiment of the tangled web of racial identity in modern America.
Call it Lee’s understanding that everything is an ever-complicating dialectic, most of all the brimstone-spewing protest rap group the Mau Maus who Lee endorses one minute, keen on their sonic treatises of social pain, and mocks the next, disgruntled by their somewhat surface-bound, illusory versions of social onslaught and criticism. Here, Lee is also critical of his black brothers and sisters who co-opt minstrelsy for themselves, even as he expresses undying empathy with them and sketches their own inner strangulation in a world that coerces them to throttle economic possibility and personal sabotage into a heated, uneasy harmony.
A circular film, themes contradict, amble about, and rediscover themselves over time, affording a film that is both monochromatic – passionately singleminded in its rage – and prismatic – unleashing its tendrils into the world around it not knowing what it will find. So much to unpack, so little time, and the film is sometimes blithely disinterested in its own dirty work, perhaps because it knows what sticking its hand into a rattrap already looks like. After all, Spike Lee is a black man in America. Vulgarity, with satire that is more pummeling than ambidextrous, may be its best weapon after all, in which case the galvanic bluntness of the satire materializes as a necessary respite from timid subtlety. All the director’s films are joints, but this one is a fire-starter if it’s a blunt (and it is blunt), and a seedy commotion if it’s a party in a dive-bar.
Histrionic but incisive, this exegesis of modern America also grants itself safe passage to apply racist stereotypes in ways that can swaddle the commentary underneath (thus the famed remarks about black comedians like Mooney resorting to private jokes at America’s expense, knowing that they have to slide critiques under the surface of superficially racist jokes at the cost of layering so much subtlety onto the commentary that audience miss the point in the first place). Much like Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle, there’s an “adopt coonery to skewer it” vibe here, which is always in tension with itself, perhaps the reason Lee overcompensates by splintering his own film in its devout ugliness.
So, while it is a cinematic riot act itself, Bamboozled is also a miscarriage even if it lacks the significance of texture to channel its own destruction stylistically; the aesthetic of the film never buckles and ruptures with dizzying abandon and disfigurement like the film probably should have, leaving its messiness unstoked and more a questionable trash-can blaze than a legitimate forest fire, or inferno, ready to ignite the film into a critique of its own haphazard, structurally misfiring bewilderment. Ideally, we’d have a chaotic film about the inconstancy of entertainment, a work that embodies its very thematic tensions in visual, formal chaos. Bamboozled doesn’t get us all the way there; its chaos is merely effective, never superlative. But the mess is ancillary to the vigorous, hissing bipolarity of a work that weaponizes itself against society, rejects the socially inflicted mandate to police itself by channeling itself toward composure and clarity, and sometimes disarms itself with the endless bedlam of its attack. Like many black women and men in America, Bamboozled is viciously uncomfortable with itself and ablaze with anger of both internal and external phyla.
Yes, Bamboozled presides over its funeral. But Lee, ever the mischievous trickster and personally acclimatized to the fact of agonizing over outlets for social change, attends the film’s funeral, attends to the film’s self-inflicted wounds and failures, in his brightest, most blaring purple suit, harassing his film and whipping it into a frenzy and a maelstrom of necessary agitation and confusion. A passively agitated film, it energizes itself into an actively agitating film, invoking the double-consciousness rage of being antithetical to its own soul. Its weapons are its discomfited self-contradictions, not only failures to tape itself together but expressions of a world that fractures all black men and women into disparate identities rather than whole beings. If the film contradicts itself, this is only because black America has for so long had to contradict itself – being inside and outside the mainstream, African and American, accepted but pushed to the outskirts, wanting to fit in to the world and wanting to change it – just to survive. Lacking any cohesive understanding of its own characters, the film is only more capable of evoking the disorientation of a mind rattling around too many thoughts about itself to clarify its own role in the world.