What to do while watching: Explore your feelings, stay with the experience, discuss what comes up with those around you, treat yourself with tenderness, forgive yourself for your biases and prejudices as you work through your race issues. Or not: it is hard work. You can do this with either film.
What to eat while watching: Bamboozled: Chitterlings with a Cote d'Or Kings: Popcorn with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast. I know this ingredient sounds less than appetizing, but try it once, and you're hooked.
I don't think Savage is far from wrong, and this film is a good encapsulation of the dominant lack-of-paradigm as regards race in the USA. Spike Lee's film is highly confusing. Characters flip-flop, go against their own nature, and change their psyches readily. Black people act white; white people act black. It brings up the question of where identity resides: in blood or in action.
Prepare yourself to be bamboozled by the far-fetched story line of Bamboozled; but get past it, if you can, to the real issues that Spike Lee grapples with. I must confess that I have felt the not-exclusively-white inclination to give up on Spike Lee and let him rant somewhere I can't hear him. But I keep coming back because of Do The Right Thing, a movie that for me hit on such "quintessential truth, Ruth" that I feel I owe it to myself to have patience with Lee. His messages are heavy handed, but the issues he tackles are, indeed, huge and eminent.
Bamboozled, as I've suggested, is not so much a message as a forum for noticing how messed up everyone is about race (to paraphrase Savage). The story takes place around a television station looking for a new Bill Cosby-sized hit. The fact that it's all about media was alienating to me, because, to my viewpoint, who cares about television executives struggling to stay unspeakably wealthy?
But anyway, Damon Wayans plays a helplessly white-acting, black TV comedy writer named Delacroix who has just about given up on the medium. Seeing a pink slip heading his way from an irate, black-acting, white TV producer, Delacroix dreams up the most offensive, controversial show he can: a new minstrel show that picks up every pickaninny stereotype from the black-face caricatures and cartoons that were rife in the first part of this century. The show, designed to offend--I guess under some feeling that even bad publicity is good publicity--manages to alienate even its own producers.
It airs nevertheless, with the talented Savion Glover tap-dancing and the noteworthy Tommy Davidson clowning. In preparation for the show, the actors get into traditional black-face, made from burnt corks, just as Al Jolson had done (even though they are black). This provides Lee with one of many chances to detail some entertainment history as it pertains to black culture. The jokes the pair tell are stomach churning to me, a self-respecting, Green-voting Californian. It's hard to watch this, and I wonder how others, such as inner-city blacks and southern-rural whites, might react.
The show turns into a hit-by-controversy. Prominent black leaders protest, but the live audience begins coming in black-face, because everyone identifies so strongly with the "po' ol' nigger" character (which I find hard to believe, though I see why Lee needs to do this).
The show's success is like a madness bomb, driving Delacroix, and, in fact, the whole country, kinda cuckoo. Meanwhile, a militant rap posse--that includes a white man in its ranks--decides to take action. Since Glover is the main face behind this resurgence of stereotype, undoing (it seems) the work of civil rights and race relations since The Civil War, the rap gangstas go militant on his ass, not knowing that he has repented the role. They don't know anything about Delacroix or his honky network boss. The ending has a tragic, Romeo-and-Juliet finale--heavy-handed, but perhaps sadly realistic.
As a curtain call, Lee tacks on many minutes of footage of minstrel-shows, clips from old movies, cartoons, television, etc. Maybe this is just to underscore that this type of entertainment, based on race disparagement, really has existed and has had its effects on the people in this country. Many issues are open as the final credits roll. I suggest seeing this with friends and having as open and frank a discussion as you can. Set aside a few minutes, at least as long as it takes to rewind the film, just to discuss your feelings and ideas. Please stay open to what everyone else has to say, and listen for the truth.
In a lighter vein, but still with a weather-eye toward race issues in the U.S. today is the Original Kings of Comedy, a comedy concert movie featuring the engaging antics of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac. These four comedians presented me with the utterly familiar trappings of comedy concerts and didn't offend my sensibilities or shock my expectations. The film includes such furniture as:
You also get the well-worn--I mean in a comfy way--comic delivery style of set-up, punchline, transition to entirely new subject; set-up, punchline, transition to entirely new subject. You won't be disappointed if you're looking for a few moments of sincerity, either. Those few earnest moments come like clockwork in each comedian's set.
What Spike Lee delivers beyond the usual comedy footage is backstage discussion with the comics, and extreme visual--and audio--close-ups of the audience. Sure, you always see camera shots of people laughing cut into a comedy concert, but Lee has the mics pick up audience commentary as well. You know, I didn't really need to hear audience members saying stuff like "That's so true!" and "Yes, yes, yes!" But I do respect Lee for doing things differently.
In general, the material is good. I really like Steve Harvey's lecture on old-school R&B music. It's a departure from the purely "funny" to something a little preacherly or even professorial. He has the sound engineer play several 70's tunes while he rants about how these are the greatest songs. This makes for a nice break from the constant stream of jokes and does something to expand the definition of comedy concert.
Finally, friends and seekers, as an adjunct to your viewing
on the African-American role in entertainment, I highly recommend
Free to Dance. This documentary delivers an extensive
and visually stunning history of black dance in the U.S. I enjoyed
seeing this documentary more than either of the films reviewed
here. Look for it on your local PBS station or click the link
below for ordering information. Demand it from your local video