Spike Lee on Race and the Idiot Box

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled takes its title from the late Malcolm X’s exhortation to his followers: “You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray, led amok. You’ve been bamboozled.” Mr. Lee also credits Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), as inspirations for Bamboozled , which he describes as “a probing look into the past, present and future of films and television.”

So much for intentions. Indeed, from the advance buzz on Bamboozled , I expected at least a mention of the new breed of richer-than-thou “gangsta rapper” who has aroused controversy among both blacks and whites. Mr. Lee has chosen not to be so topical. Instead, he has resurrected the old “coon” or minstrel shows, with the racist horrors of blackface as the centerpiece of his satire.

But satire of what and when? Blackface went out before television came in. Even Amos ‘n’ Andy , one of the most popular manifestations of blackface on radio, was recast with black actors when it was adapted for television, and even then it was short-lived because of its racist content. And if we remember that even Franklin Delano Roosevelt listened faithfully to the two white performers masquerading with black dialects every evening at 7, we get an idea of the casualness of racial bigotry in the 30’s and 40’s.

But by limiting his “satire” to television, Mr. Lee is indulging in an outdated fantasy. His ostensible protagonist, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), is a young, Harvard-educated man who is the sole person of color writing for a particularly sleazy television network that is dying in the ratings race. His hard-driving white boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), gives Delacroix an ultimatum: Either come up with a ratings winner or look for the exit. Delacroix and his attractive Girl Friday, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), come up with the idea of putting on an old-time minstrel show, hoping to generate enough outrage to frighten the network into returning to middle-class clones of The Cosby Show . Delacroix is nothing if not cynical toward his chosen medium, which he repeatedly refers to as the “idiot box.”

Mr. Lee has been caricaturing the affectations of educated African-Americans ever since his first film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), a made-on-a-shoestring comedy with considerable charm, particularly on the part of Mr. Lee, the actor. Unfortunately, Mr. Wayans has burdened Delacroix with the most excruciatingly artificial accent I have ever heard, and the character is thereby neither life-like nor funny. By contrast, Ms. Pinkett-Smith gives her own dialogue a straight reading, which makes her, by default, the audience’s raisonneur .

The most interesting elements of Bamboozled are in the realm of performance art rather than social criticism. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson play Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat in the Delacroix-devised The New Millennium Minstrel Show with such gusto that we are reminded of the showbiz talent and timing buried in the past under the sickeningly degrading blackface. Yet by invoking the millennium, Mr. Lee reduces the credibility of the spectacle. After all, the only issue nowadays is whether old movies on television should have their blackface sequences censored, and forget about Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor altogether.

Mr. Lee hits a ten-strike on the implied complaint about the scarcity of African-American writers and producers in network television with the help of an insert from The Chris Rock Show on HBO (a cable outlet that, unlike network television, does not blip out objectionable words). Still, one can make the same complaint about the shameful shortage in professional sports of black baseball managers and football coaches. Nonetheless, over the past 50 years the black image in television and movies has progressed more rapidly than the process of integration in civilian life. There is still a long way to go, but a revival of coon shows is not on anyone’s agenda.

It might be argued that Mr. Lee has decided to shock Whitey one last time by rubbing his nose in the blackface obscenities of the past. The problem is that so-called crossover viewers may be hard to find for this terminally angry and turgid guilt trip. Besides, white liberals have probably digested and deplored all the visual stimuli that black historian Donald Bogle has dispensed in his classic treatise Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks , with its convenient rationale for Mr. Lee: “Often enough the old stereotypes resurface simply dressed in new garb to look modern, hip, provocative and politically relevant.”

Yet if Mr. Lee meant to bring back blackface entertainment as a metaphor for the current black performers he finds obnoxious, he has miscalculated. The blackface ritual takes off on its own as a massive guilt-inducing trauma for its practitioners. The result is a surreal climax, saturated with black self-hatred and Black Panther-like paranoia. Mr. Lee seems determined to discard his acquired institutional respectability to return to the window-smashing anti-white catharsis of Do the Right Thing (1989).

In the name of critical integrity, I suppose I am honor-bound to reveal that, years ago, I had a mildly unpleasant encounter with Mr. Lee on Ted Koppel’s Nightline . Yet nothing would make me happier than to have Mr. Lee prove that I was wrong on that occasion, by making a film with less aesthetic and thematic confusion than is to be found in Bamboozled . No such luck. The break-ups between Delacroix and Hopkins in one subplot and Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat in another are reminiscent of the most banal Hollywood backstage-showbiz plots, except that Mr. Lee manages to drag in racist overtones to make the overly familiar misunderstandings seem original. Similarly, the attempts to give Delacroix and Hopkins back-stories–the former with a drunken comedian father and the latter with a murderous Mau Mau brother–drift off into the realm of facile contrivances that cannot sustain the weight of the carnage that comes unexpectedly in a blur of genre confusion.

The last images of the film are devoted to a documentation of the history of blackface, going back to the most inflammatory sequences from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and implicating such screen icons as Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. I’ve seen them all before, and they still make me cringe.

When Bad Things Happen to Great Characters

Benito Zambrano’s Solas is a remarkably benign treatment of life on the lower rungs of society in a small city in southern Spain. María (Ana Fernández) is a beautiful woman with many problems, not the least of which is her status as a cleaning woman. She drinks excessively, and has become involved with an itinerant worker who is too lazy to use a condom, and who does not want her to have the baby with which he has unintentionally impregnated her.

In the midst of her dilemma, María is visited by her mother (María Galiana), who has come to town from the country because María’s cold, shiftless, ne’er-do-well father requires surgery. The movie is concerned mostly with the warm relationship that eventually develops between María and her remarkably patient and compassionate mother.

A very dignified downstairs neighbor (Carlos Álvarez-Novova) figures prominently in the lives of the two women. There is a quiet sadness at work in all three characters, but without any whining or self-pity or hysteria. I cannot remember when I saw three characters so beset by adversity, and yet so unfailingly brave and decent with each other. The mother is particularly marvelous in her magnificent kindness, both to the elderly and embarrassingly incontinent neighbor and to her eternally ungrateful and pathologically jealous husband. She is a Mother Courage personified–but more than that, she is tactful enough to do what she perceives to be her duty, despite all the provocations of a monstrously unsympathetic wretch of a husband. Yet it is María who makes the crucial decision to have her baby without even telling her mother she is pregnant. She leaves her loutish lover and accepts the offer of the gentleman downstairs to act as the baby’s grandfather.

What distinguishes Solas from other recent movies is the sublime goodness of its major characters, as well as the dexterity with which Mr. Zambrano manages to make this chronicle of virtue entertaining. With movie screens these days seemingly saturated with endless variations on the evil capacities of humankind, it is refreshing to be reminded of heartwarming possibilities like María, her mother and the gentleman downstairs.

The Best Movie of 1971 Finally Hits the Screen

Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry, is not actually being revived, inasmuch as it was practically dead on delivery as far as its original commercial release was concerned. Esquire magazine had printed the original screenplay in advance, with a cover blurb to the effect that Two-Lane Blacktop was guaranteed to be the best movie of the year. Later, when the movie had tanked at the box office and with many of the critics, the editors of Esquire tried to overcome their embarrassment by blaming the “cult auteur” Monte Hellman for the disaster.

As it was, I didn’t even get to review the movie before it closed, and the film’s publicist said she would never forgive me (as if I could have made all the difference). Most of the film tracks an impromptu race across the American Southwest for big money between the supercharged Pontiac of Warren Oates and the souped-up hot rod of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. It is all very 70’s and very open-ended, and Mr. Oates is marvelous.