Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I’m unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus…differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye’s catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. “Rapacious and incompetent professional men”–those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network’s only African-American staff writer. The story’s “virtuosi” are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
“Enthusiasts” are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep ‘n’ Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix’s horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation’s latest fad.
“Cranks”–these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes–they’re unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor–so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
“Parvenus”–a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. “Pedant”–that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix’s young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She’s the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She’s also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix’s office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery’s worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, “piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme.”
Finally, we have the category of “bigots.” It’s enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I’d better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he’d learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he’s a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing–pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him–who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life–his apartment decor and the script for his TV show–combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It’s the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn’t know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, “I don’t know who I is!”
He’s not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. “Know what I mean? Know what I’m sayin’?” they sputter at one another, without anyone’s actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine–the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. “Yo! I’m the only black in this room!” he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of “Nigger nigger nigger nigger!” But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film’s African characters suffer for theirs–and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he’s never before made this problem the main focus of a film–and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he’s never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he’s revived.
The movie’s dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance–how could a movie go wrong with him?–but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens!” Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he’s shown that the entertainment is the wound–the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It’s understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture’s being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee’s picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we–and he–were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it’s an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture–the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner’s son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he’s the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father’s union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world–not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn’t insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers’ strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy’s ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what’s more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It’s harmless enough–and I’m pleased to say it’s accomplished through public financing.