Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Criterion Collection Spine #1019
Writer and Director Spike Lee presents a powerful and provocative education in the history of racial exploitation in America.
"I want you to look at this shit. Look to what you contributed to!"
It would be difficult to discuss Bamboozled at any time, but that is especially the case in the Spring of 2020 with racial tensions boiling over as a result of the senseless murder of George Floyd, at the hands of police. So I will do my best to express why I think this is an important piece of filmmaking, that aims to fight racial prejudice.
For me, Bamboozled was both an incredible and uncomfortable movie watching experience. I have always been a fan of bold and powerful movies, and for that reason, I had to give this Spike Lee joint 5 stars. But this was an unprecedented case where I felt like it would have been inappropriate to say that I actually liked the film, but I certainly do respect its defiant message.
"Feed the idiot box. Feed the idiot box."
Bamboozled is the story of television writer Pierre Delacroix played by Damon Wayans, and details his attempt to get fired from his Network television job by creating the most regressive and offensive television show possible. Delacroix has an elegant (possibly even pretentious) way of speaking. A habit he likely adopted as a result of him wanting to distance himself from his upbringing, since we come to see that he does have plain-spoken all-American parents. He feels that his previous shows on the Network were canceled prematurely, so in order to get out of his contract, he needs to get fired.
To say Delacroix's boss played by Michael Rapaport was racially insensitive would be an understatement. He is the type of character that thinks he has the right to say the N-word as a result of his appreciation for black culture. So then Delacroix is able to easily manipulate him into moving forward on his 'The New Millennium Minstrel Show' project. A show where he gets his black cast to perform a variety show in black-face, in the setting of a southern plantation, with countless racial stereotypes on display.
We see the show's test audience have drastically different reactions to what they witness. The white members of the audience appear to be appalled, while some of the black audience members appear to find the content outrageous and amusing. The truly sad part is that while now I can easily say that this kind of show is disgusting and racist, Lee shows us throughout the film how this form of entertainment was once a reality. In Lee's opinion, based on interviews during the time he released Bamboozled, he felt like there are still remnants of the minstrel show that can be seen in today's entertainment.
The rest of the cast also delivers stunning performances including Jada Pinkett Smith, Savion Glover, and Tommy Davidson. One of the most emotional scenes is when we hear the description of how the black-face makeup was created, and then it shows how emotional it is for the two main actors to apply it, along with their bright red lipstick.
Most of the film was shot on digital video, which has a very flat and grainy look. The minstrel show, however, was shot on film, which gives it a pristine aesthetic, which was a clever way to contrast the offensiveness of the show.
In true satirical form, despite Delacroix's outright attempt to make a show that should have no place on TV, the show instead becomes an award-winning hit. By the end of the movie, both black and white audience members are shown wearing blackface masks in support of the show, leading up to the tragic climax.
In the end, the creators of the show come to see the madness that they have unleashed. This includes the stars of the show who are now disgusted by it, despite the show enabling them to go from poverty-stricken street performers to becoming wealthy television stars. The damage is done, however, resulting in one of the actors getting kidnapped and executed on live television by a hip-hop group that does see the show for the tasteless exploit that it truly is.
While Bamboozled is an extremely difficult film, I feel that it is also very important in helping to better understand the history of racially exploitative and demeaning entertainment in America.
Thanks for reading, and best wishes to everyone.