Arguably,”Bamboozled” is Spike Lee’s most underrated film. It didn’t get a lot of critical respect back in 2001, but this is a film that seriously needs another look.
“Bamboozled”‘s lead character is an African-American executive for a television network (played by Damon Wayans) who wants to get out of his contract, but can’t unless he’s fired. To get fired, he decides to come up with the most racist show he can imagine, a new-Millenial minstrel show, with black actors in black face, tap dancing, etc. Unfortunately for Wayans’ character, the network not only loves it, but the public does too. His show becomes the most popular show in the nation and Wayans ignores his ideals, embraces his new fame, and loses his soul.
Lee patterned “Bamboozled” on two stellar and abrasive media satires, Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg’s 1956 film “A Face in the Crowd” and Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film “Network.” While you can definitely see the influence of both films on “Bamboozled,” “Bamboozled” throws race into the mix. The result is a very uncomfortable and disturbing look at what we, as Americans, have called “entertainment” for over a century … an entertainment that is based on the debasement of a race of people. “Bamboozled” isn’t perfect and it could have been shorter by about 20 minutes or so, but what’s there is still devastating, especially the montage at the end which is a compilation of some of the most horrific examples of racism in film history.
“Bamboozled” in many ways prefigured the Dave Chappelle controversy of 2005, when Chappelle left a $50 million contract with Viacom because he no longer felt comfortable with the material that he was doing on his very popular cable show for Comedy Central.
What’s also intriguing about “Bamboozled” is that it’s one of the few films that seriously analyzes the art of comedy. Being a comedy junkie, I relish any pop culture artifact that takes comedy seriously and examines, sometimes uncomfortably, what makes people laugh and why.