The Shame of a Nation

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The blackface charade is on the air! A troupe of darkies in their field-workers' clothes and prison garb are singin' and dancin' and funnin' away, in a skewed, bitter, made-for-TV version of the old minstrel show. The feet flash, the banjos are pummeled; the energy level ascends in megavolts, moving beyond satire into irresistible entertainment. And suddenly a weird thought creases the moviegoer's skull: TV could use a comedy-variety show with a self-lacerating edge; and Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show--the defiantly offensive TV parody that is at the heart of Spike Lee's Bamboozled--might just be the one. This show could be a hit.

Bamboozled is Lee's latest and most telling outrage--a spuming fulmination on the racial stereotypes that Americans, black and white, endure and perpetuate. A political parody of media venality, it's The Producers crossed with In Living Color, or Network meets Bulworth. And despite its sternest intentions and laudably high squirm content, the movie is often fun. Just as Mel Brooks had to turn the Springtime for Hitler production number into a giddy riot of goose steps, the polemicist in Lee occasionally surrenders to the entertainer in him and allows his sour minstrel travesty to effervesce. He points fingers but can't help snapping them.

At Bamboozled's fictional TV network, Harvard-educated Pierre Dela-croix (Damon Wayans) is the token black executive. His abrasive boss (Michael Rappaport) charges him to devise a hot, edgy new series. Angry and desperate, Pierre proposes a minstrel show--a format "so negative, so offensive and racist" that it will prove his point about the lack of ethical or aesthetic standards on TV. Aided by his skeptical, ambitious assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith), he hires as his stars a homeless tap dancer (Savion Glover) and his pal (Tommy Davidson). Renamed Mantan and Sleep 'n Eat, they are given a supporting cast of Topsy, Rastus, Sambo and Aunt Jemima--enough reminders of racism to spur protests from an enraged citizenry. Guess what? The show is a smash. Audience members show up in blackface. The unknowns become stars. America loves Mantan.

Bamboozled puts fashionable technology (the movie was shot with digital video cameras and transferred to film) in the service of a backstage tale as familiar as 42nd Street. It's Lee's usual mix of slapdash dramaturgy and sharp performances; note especially Paul Mooney, cogent and sexy as Pierre's dad, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd as the Mantan show's announcer. It has big third-act problems, when the caricatures are meant to morph into poignant humans. Then everyone pulls guns out. Insanity!

But say this for Lee: he is an equal-opportunity annoyer. He condemns whites for manufacturing the old image of the shiftless, larcenous Negro and for still seeing blacks through that warped prism. He also chastises blacks for inhabiting restrictive new and polar-opposite categories: the gangsta and the Buppie. Satire typically proceeds from two impulses: rage at the powerful and contempt for the masses. Lee has both.

Social and cinema history back him up. The first great movie epic (The Birth of a Nation) and the first talkie sensation (The Jazz Singer) wallowed in racial derision, personified by white actors in blackface. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Bugs Bunny defaced themselves in minstrel cork. Egregious stereotyping can still be heard, most mornings, on Don Imus' and Howard Stern's radio shows--aural blackface. Somebody had to shout, "Enough," and, whaddaya know, it was Spike Lee.

In hindsight we scorn the whites who loved minstrel shows and pity the blacks who had to play in them. But there are shades of culpability. Astaire, donning blackface for his Bojangles of Harlem number, probably thought (from ignorance, not malice) that he was paying sincere tribute to the great dancer Bill Robinson. As for Mantan Moreland, the black comic whose bug-eyed mugging in Charlie Chan films earns Lee's particular ire, he also was the star of films made for, and presumably appreciated by, the black audience. Perhaps we all have 20/20 vision of the past; it's the present that blurs. Today most whites are ashamed of the degrading racist stereotypes. Years from now, blacks may be chagrined to recall that their young men addressed one another familiarly as "Nigger" and chose hoodlums as their cultural gods.

Satire at its sharpest leaves the stain of guilt in all who are exposed to it. With his panoramic rage, Lee shows how every generation, of every color, runs the risk of being bamboozled.