“Bamboozled” (2001) dir. Spike Lee

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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.

Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd” dir. Elia Kazan

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Andy Griffith … as Satan! One of the most frighteningly intense performances of all-time by one of America’s favorite “nice guys.” As much as I love “The Andy Griffith Show,” this performance makes me wish he had gone an edgier route in his career. He certainly had the chops for it. Seriously, as great as Burt Lancaster was in “Elmer Gantry,” could you imagine Griffith tearing it up? Regardless, this is the performance of a lifetime and of course, was ignored by every major film awards society and group back in the day.

Eric Bogosian in “Talk Radio” (1988) dir. Oliver Stone

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One of the most ferocious performances I have ever seen on film is Bogosian’s turn as talk radio host Barry Champlain in Oliver Stone’s film “Talk Radio.” Like Andy Griffith’s performance in Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” and Ryan Gosling’s performance in Henry Bean’s “The Believer,” these are performances so frighteningly intense that they seem to come from another planet. Tellingly, none of these performances were ever nominated for any major awards.

Unfortunately, all I’m able to post here is the original trailer.  The stunning monologue / freak-out Bogosian does near the end of the film that I originally posted has since been taken down by YouTube.  To be fair to this trailer, this was one of the first uses of George Thoroughgood’s “Bad to the Bone” in a film (after its use in John Carpenter’s “Christine” and a film called “Slayground” from the mid-1980s) before it got overused during the 1990s.

Why Bogosian never became a bigger star is beyond my comprehension. If you ever have the chance to see him live, do yourself a favor and go. I saw him in 2001 in Albany, NY and it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. Also recommended, his performance film “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.”