Spike Lee is a natural tree-shaker and grenade-thrower whose remarks to the press sometimes provoke deeper arguments about American culture than most of the softball "message" movies Hollywood lobs out for Oscar consideration. Few of his recent films have lived up to the early promise of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, but even his misfires display a kind of intellectual daring that's increasingly difficult to find in movie theaters these days. Such is the case with Bamboozled, a potent but unfocused satire about the depiction of blacks in the media that ultimately collapses under the weight of its lofty ambitions.
Paying homage at several points to its clear model, the seminal 1976 television-biz send-up Network, Lee's latest attack on institutionalized racism follows Harvard-educated black TV exec Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans). He responds to pressure from his boss (Michael Rapaport) to dream up a "cutting edge" new program that will boost the network's lagging ratings. Delacroix responds with a concept so offensive that he's sure it will be rejected out of hand: an old-fashioned minstrel show featuring two "Amos and Andy"-style characters clowning in blackface at a Southern plantation. To his surprise (but hardly the audience's), this shocking collection of racial stereotypes is quickly picked up for production, and the resulting show is an instant hit with white and black audiences alike.
Writer-director-producer Lee is at home with the biting irony of the film's first section, and scenes, such as the one in which Delacroix urges the program's all-white writing staff to dig into its personal angst over the O.J. Simpson verdict ("How do you feel when the glove didn't fit?"), are hilariously on-target. The decision to shoot in digital video - currently the rage among indie filmmakers - fits Lee's fast-and-loose style, and the resulting gritty look works well in a film about television.
Once the new show is up and running, however, basic story problems and a lack of clear direction begin to sap the film's momentum. For one thing, we're never given a convincing reason why Delacroix wants to create the most derogatory depiction of black people imaginable (an early suggestion that he's doing so to get fired and escape from his contract with the network just doesn't wash). The motivations of his brainy assistant (Nutty Professor II's Jada Pinkett-Smith) are similarly murky. Lee sets her up as the conscience of the piece, but if she's so knowledgeable about the cultural subjugation of blacks in American history, why does she go along with her Delacroix's horrifying idea in the first place?
Wayans' over-the-top work as the pretentious Delacroix generates plenty of humorous moments, though his winking sketch-comedy approach often seems out of sync with the more realistic performances from the rest of the actors. Of these, Rapaport (Mighty Aphrodite) is the funniest as a white network executive who thinks he's down with the black folk because he's in an interracial marriage and has a wall covered with photos of African-American sports heroes. Tommy Davidson (Booty Call) and dancer/choreographer Savion Glover (Broadway's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk) are charming as the street performers Delacroix recruits to play the show's comedy-and-dance men, but Lee's attempts to flesh out their characters with some last-minute serious drama never really get anywhere.
From his wry spoofing of commercials that mirror the minstrel show's black-faced antics to his chilling use of racist imagery from actual movies, TV shows and everyday objects, Lee has loaded Bamboozled with enough challenging ideas to power two or three such movies. However, by the time the film has dragged to the end of its taxing 136 minutes, it's clear he never found a way to shape those ideas into a satisfying whole.