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The Editor's Spin - Choice of Colors

Stephen F. Nathans

July 2001 | Spike Lee's Bamboozled takes its title from a fiery bit of ad-libbing that Denzel Washington tore off in Lee's earlier Malcolm X. Inhabiting Malcolm X's often-quoted "You've been had" riff, Washington went with the flow ("You been had, you been took, you been misled"), and, to great effect, managed to get "Bamboozled" in there. But Lee doesn't just appropriate the word for Bamboozled; he inserts the clip itself. At the mention of Malcolm in the movie, in a flash, there's Denzel, on Harlem's Lenox Avenue, exhorting the multitudes.

It's a dazzling technique, one that Lee uses throughout Bamboozled. As a cautionary tale positing the modern revival of minstrelsy–the darkest hour of American stage and screen, in which whites and blacks donned blackface and performed comic song-and-dance parodies of stereotyped "plantation darkies"–Bamboozled is by definition a satire steeped in history. And with its deluge of images–interwoven with the narrative– of blackface stage performers, celluloid slave stereotypes from Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation, comedy acts like Amos & Andy, all the way up to borderline shuck-and-jive TV shows like "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons", the film plays like a visual concordance of African-American entertainment past to present.

And what better way to drive home the message that the potential for a "New Millennium" resurrection of historical horrors, unthinkable to modern morality, is inherent in our most popular cultural predilections. After all, it's not all that far-fetched that a popular culture–black and white–that delights in the black self-abnegations of gangsta rap would go hog wild for a minstrel show. Nobody ever questioned the quality of black showmanship that went into minstrelsy; the black comic performers of the pre-World War II era, nearly all of whom did minstrel work, were among the greatest entertainers of the day. (Mel Watkins' 1995 book, On the Real Side, thoroughly chronicles their history.) If the subject matter–or the burnt-cork makeup itself–didn't make you shudder, the tap would make you smile, the acrobatic bumbling would make you laugh, and the songs would make you tap your feet. Just like the great groove underlying a rap number glorifying street violence.

Take it or leave it, that's essentially Lee's point in Bamboozled, and he drives it home with a powerfully constructed foundation of cultural context. As powerful as the action and performances in the film are, it's all those images of the blackface actors and blackface lawn ornaments from a seemingly bygone era that bore holes in your brain and refuse to let you forget them.

Throughout his career, Spike Lee has faced mounting expectations that he somehow speak for black America on screen. To his credit, it's a role he's taken quite seriously. Still, there's never been any doubt that what you see in his films is entertainment, and is intended as such. Lee's work insists that even when they're addressing serious issues, and living in serious times, entertainers entertain.

Bamboozled is certainly more emphatic than other Spike Lee films in placing itself in the context of an entertainment tradition. I watched Bamboozled on VHS, having recently moved and not yet set up my DVD system, and have no idea what sort of "extras" the DVD offers. But here's one case in which it really doesn't matter. In a way, in the overwhelming sense of context it provides, Bamboozled itself, as a linear film, is a nearly perfect blueprint for what a great DVD can be; that is, the film alone gives you everything a great DVD should.

Few filmmakers are as skilled as Spike Lee when it comes to forging a cogent statement out of seemingly scattershot images–harnessing the power of non-linear art in a linear medium. But that's where DVD comes in. What better way to hit your audience over the head with your point, or your influences, or the historical background of your work, or your encyclopedic knowledge of some wrinkle in time or corner of the earth, without compromising the "flow" of your work, than with the additional features of a DVD? Too many of the DVDs we acclaim as generous with their "extras" are exceptionally inward-looking, too focused on a director's musing on himself and his art, too generous with things that weren't good enough to make it into the movie in the first place. (For all I know, that's what the extras on the Bamboozled DVD hold in store.) But within any historical or political filmmaker, there must be some documentarian impulse, that for one reason or another proved in conflict with his or her gifts as an artist. How rewarding would it be to indulge that, however amateurishly, with the leftover bit budget of a DVD?

Best of all, the expanded palette of DVD offers potential resolution to that core conflict of slighting a serious subject by treating it entertainingly. The fact is, as a writer or director, you may never convey the sense of gravity you feel for a subject you treat as entertainment. But as a DVD creator, with all the educational tools at your disposal, you can. Granted, not every movie hinges so profoundly on the schism between comedy and conscience, or carries such a weighty burden of heavy-hearted history, as Bamboozled does. Not every movie demands gravity in the face of comedy. And Spike Lee is far from the only filmmaker to walk that tightrope; Roberto Benigni took plenty of heat for setting a romantic comedy in the context of the Holocaust in Life Is Beautiful. And I'd never suggest that Benigni or Lee or others should feel obligated to use a medium like DVD to answer for how "lightly" they might have treated particularly grave topics. But it makes a great opportunity to deliver the burning-image impact that Bamboozled packs–even when, as Lee himself would admit, confronting the burnt-cork itself might not be enough.


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