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Ugly Images. How Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ Stands at the Center of His Filmography

Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

Spike Lee was bound to go digital. From 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It on, the director’s cinema has pushed against—and even rocketed past—the formal strictures of the camera. Changing from black and white to color stock and back again; frequently switching the aspect ratio; switching the aspect ratio beyond conventional framing techniques, so the characters onscreen are either elongated or squashed by the borders; the insertion of archival video and photography; the consistent use of his infamous dolly shot, in which the subject will glide detached from the background, as if floating; experimenting with varying frame rates; and, in the case of 2000’s Bamboozled, shooting on consumer grade handycams from a multi-camera setup, and then cutting the footage on tape.

But as Lee tells it, arriving at the artistry of Bamboozled’s digital setup required an initial pathway of pragmatism. The no-holds barred, take-no-prisoners, and no-more-bullshit ferocity of the script is an absolute wonder in how it was green lit with little hesitation by New Line Cinema; the budget, however, would only be a measly $10 million. Similar to the underserved fates of many a Spike Lee film, Bamboozled commercially bombed, and was widely misinterpreted—and perhaps intentionally so—by a large population of critics not ready to submit to the film’s timeliness. Thus, Lee’s hydra-headed thesis of race and perception was considered too impolite, even too wide reaching, and the film fell largely out of circulation.

As incendiary as the narrative is—disgruntled CNS Television executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) pitches a contemporary minstrel show with fingers crossed it’ll ensure swift ejection from his contract; instead, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is a hit—it’s rooted in a larger tradition of well-regarded satire. Lee has cited Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), and Bamboozled is even dedicated to A Face In the Crowd (Kazan, 1957) screenwriter, Budd Schulberg. Given Lee’s reputation of being a director of excess, however, Bamboozled lets loose a generous, repeating carousel of dense talking points, both from a formal and thematic perspective, unfortunately too top-heavy for a Hollywood product at the turn of the millennium. New Line Cinemas is the studio that the year before Lee’s film put out the giggly, frat-house Bond sendup (sequel!) Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and the year after, undertook the extremely successful, extremely long-winded The Lord of the Rings, no less. Bamboozled was not in similar company.

Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

The recent restoration of what is one of Lee’s densest works presents something of an anomalous artifact from a hyper-specific point in film history; it feels prophetic that Bamboozled would be delivered upon the new millennium. Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ use of digital doesn’t elicit the fawning cults of such film world sacred-cows like David Fincher and Michael Mann, whose use of the medium furnishes their respective cinemas of perfectionism and near avant-garde swings at awesome beauty. The digital of Bamboozled is ugly, smudgy, giving the film that oft-despised soap opera veneer, and is absorbed into the film’s overarching narrative. It’s the visual framework David Lynch would adopt a few years later for Inland Empire (2006), but unlike that director, Lee isn’t interested in obfuscating his authorial intent in tantalizing breaks from reality or the like; the sliding scale (from digital, to film, and back again) of the images is dispensed as a substantive corollary to Bamboozled’s more writerly elements. What could be initially misperceived as merely tangential to the film’s more thematic heft is actually inextricable from such.

Thankfully, Lee and Kuras oversaw the restoration—and subsequent Criterion Collection release—themselves, and all that raw ugliness is preserved, perhaps even more glaring, what with an extensive 2K transfer. Sure, Bamboozled looks vastly more nuanced than any daytime television program, but the director and DP clearly have no reservations in regard to their highly unorthodox camera setup. Considering the aesthetic similarities, as well as also being restored and released by a boutique distributor, Bamboozled could be lumped in with the likes of Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films or Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980). But Lee isn’t striving for Straub-Huillet austerity, and neither Costa nor Gunn ever tapped the turn of the millennia star-powered likes of Jada Pinkett-Smith, Michael Rappaport, Savion Glover (in one of the revered tap-dancer’s few movie roles), Tommy Davis, Damon Wayans or Mos Def, much less in the same film.

Lee is an unabashed Hollywood director, favoring a highly-recognizable, varied ensemble cast of actors, performers and musicians over nonprofessionals. To capture them in this unromanticized, home-movie level quality underpins the inherent ugliness of the film’s conceit, manifested visually as blackface becomes a nationwide phenomenon (compared to yo-yos, pet rocks and beanie babies, by one reporter) as the unintended popularity of Mantan flourishes like driveway weeds. The variety show features two street performers, tap-dancer Manray (Glover) and Womack (Davidson), who Pierre plucks from busking outside the foyer of the CNS offices, and presents them to his clueless, racist, culture vulture boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport). Dunwitty, a self-proclaimed savant of black culture, lunges at Pierre’s idea, misinterpreting his deep-ingrained, discomfiting habit of objectifying black performers and athletes as something of empathetic, interracial understanding, and it’s even his idea to set Mantan on a Southern plantation… which grows watermelons. He’s equally enthusiastic of Manray and Womack donning blackface, and the stage monikers Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, respectively.

Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

Bamboozled, already a daring film within its own parameters, stares the audience straight in the face and doesn’t break away. The digital segments—which mostly chronicle the everyday routines surrounding the inception and growing acclaim of Mantan—can play as hermetic, fashioning a rhythm of unpredictable tonal shifts that don’t always allow for the audience to get a proper foothold in the immediate world of Pierre Delacroix. Kuras fashions a descending, canted shot to introduce Pierre in his executive-chic, clock tower apartment, before Lee giddily breaks out the dolly shot for Pierre to address the camera directly in his affected, Harvard-adjacent tone, defining the concept of “satire”. The film is announced plainly already with a nested satire—as Mantan itself is framed as such—but assembles itself atop discombobulating elements. The dolly shot, already a precarious, albeit thrilling, facet of Lee’s filmmaking plays with cool detachment, not channeling character interiority the way it does in Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996) or Summer of Sam (1999), but instead spitting Pierre out as an impenetrable embodiment of contradictions and unknowable motivations. All this as the DV allows a beaming ray of sun to occasionally bleach out the frame, challenging the viewer’s expectations of sight when it comes to establishing a film’s star. Lee’s already controversial methods, at least couched within some relative familiarity, effectively commingle with an entirely new filmmaking beast.

It’s in the Mantan centerpieces where this restoration brings forth the governing, formal rift of the film. The show’s tapings themselves will suddenly switch to a super lush, wonderfully tactile super 16 mm stock (later blown up to 35 mm), a move that highlights the daring regression the show later capitalizes on. The method Kuras and Lee opts for is richly rendered visually, but there’s an intended, jarring rupture in this sudden jump from the otherwise digital palette. The gut instinct is to remark on the inherent beauty of the film segments, until realizing how crisply the obvious stereotype just oozes from the screen; the coal-darkened hues of the blackface, the blood-red lipstick, the bright white gloves. It’s unnervingly sumptuous, distilling an entire history’s worth of racial demoralization into a few scattered minutes of broadcast television screentime. The restoration gives the digital majority a more dignified depth to its compositions, and then sends the Mantan tapings into the stratosphere. What should’ve been impossible to brush off then is unequivocally impossible to do now.

The attractiveness of Mantan’s images then will frequently cut to audience members’ reactions, once again shot digitally, many of whom at the pilot taping, look to be squirming with discomfort. When more black viewers laugh along however, is when more non-black attendees begin to do the same, “believ[ing] they can access the black passion that existed on the plantation.” Once the audience has accepted this horrifying history reduced to a slapstick of submissiveness, they begin to appear on the film stock as well, their intense love for the show resulting in their own homemade blackface. Bamboozled’s ever-shifting visual dynamic isn’t a schematic one, and as the restoration makes markedly apparent, these divides are intrinsic to the devolving social climate surrounding Mantan, which in of itself is an unknowable entity. Pierre’s own spiral into self-perpetuating stereotype—is the joke even on the audience anymore, or on him? —is seen through to its very finish, resulting in a climax that dodges all predictable histrionics, as well as any governing formal force beyond the nuts and bolts of Lee’s script.

Girl 6 (Spike Lee, 1996)

Lee’s filmography is peppered with works that have sadly fallen out of the cultural conversation at large, and Bamboozled—most definitely considered a nadir upon release—with its barreling rage suggests that more similarly unwieldy projects by the director could come back into fairer, critical circulation. In fact, Bamboozled can be viewed as a Rosetta Stone for tackling a daunting corpus, considering the fact the Lee only ever made one Do the Right Thing (1989), and despite it being deemed a commercial benchmark by many, has at least never hinted at any sort of pandering anxiety in recreating that barnstorming work. Bamboozled, in all its admirably messy ambition and extreme personal attachment to its director, is the most crystalline distillation of Lee’s working ethos. Its narrative builds upon what was already multiple decades worth of multivalenced social and political interrogation, and its execution has fully channeled the welcome restlessness of its creator.

Bamboozled feels more beholden to its 90s predecessors—many of which have also just been restored and rereleased by Kino Lorber—than it does to its genre-inflected, all around more warmly received successors, 25th Hour (2002) and Inside Man (2006). The 90s films similarly gave Lee the reputation of a curmudgeon, or, most baffling yet damning, that he doesn’t “understand” white people. Just as confrontational is Summer of Sam, released just a year before, which also sees audience perception and expectation as mutable, maintaining a degree of remove between the denizens of Bronx’s Pelham Bay, and the notorious serial killer Son of Sam. Although the film is ostensibly the story of Sam (real name David Berkowitz), he’s utilized as a structuring absence, never truly coming into contact with the film’s central cast, even as the myth of him still metastasizes dangerously throughout the neighborhood. Lee lays institutionalized biases bare, as masculine self-loathing externalizes itself as general intolerance, taking on a snowballing effect only exacerbated by the looming threat of a serial murderer, who, in killing necking couples at sequestered rendezvous, puts a very outdated mode of heteronormativity in hazard. In the relatively self-enclosed neighborhood, any sort of otherness is perceived as the seedlings of a more insidious agenda (if you’re gay, you could also easily be a gun-toting maniac going after brunettes), and homophobia becomes even more en vogue. Mantan unveils a public rip-roaring to unabashedly embrace blackface as if it were some overdue, shared desire, and Sam gives many an excuse to validate crass intolerances in increasingly absurd-cum-tragic contexts.

Lee’s characters also often find their own individuality swallowed up by a larger system. Some are able to reaffirm their own agency, such as much put-upon basketball prodigy Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game (1998), who successfully escapes his father’s dehumanization streak, and the auspices of many doting hangers-on; others, like Pierre Delacroix, succumb to the outside world. Bamboozled joins a larger tradition of workplace (a term to be taken liberally) pictures by Lee that extends from the splintered drugland epic of Clockers to the phone-sex office comedy Girl 6. The latter even foresees Bamboozled’s tempering of one film format with another, working with the inverse of such a formula. DP Malik Hassan Sayeed brings an unpredictable, sumptuous verve to Girl 6—which he pioneered on his first feature as cameraman, Clockers—wherein the phone-sex office space flaunts a palpable sense of community, a quality otherwise absent from the deadening greyscale of the CNS building of Bamboozled. Lee then pivots to the subjectivity of the customers on the other end of the line, though these sequences are captured on what looks to be VHS, all staticky and worn. A sensation of detachment is achieved with some of the more polite and eccentric callers, but when one man (Michael Imperioli) frequently threatens titular Girl 6 (Teresa Randle), the lo-fi qualities retain a bracing immediacy, the scuziness of the tape embodied in a sleazy, potentially violent type, lurking like a comic-book bad guy at some bodega payphone.

Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

These flourishes, regardless of how undignified or permissive, have always dovetailed with the material at play. Just like the frequent dolly-shot, they are sterling examples of the film’s thematic meat. Often mistaken as digression, such formal playfulness cracks open these films’ intimidating largeness, ensuring they never devolve into patronization, didacticism, or  uncharacteristic austerity. Many already had trouble suspending certain critical facilities for Lee films prior, when these flourishes played out as such: augmentative qualities to an already digestible film. A certain sect was bound to feel alienated when Bamboozled flipped the formula on its head (everyone from Roger Ebert to Andrew Sarris went on the attack), weaving its digital hues throughout the entire fabric, any sort of beautifying element eroded by the acidity of Mantan.

Bamboozled came to fruition in tandem with one century of film coming to a close, and another opening. Lee eschewed celebration for reckoning, however, pushing back against the porousness of cinema’s history, in which the reprehensible tropes Mantan dredges up are otherwise politely boxed away. The film ends with a heart-stopping montage that spits in the face of this rose-tinted centennial, chronicling an innumerable amount of examples of black objectification, appropriation, dehumanization and villainization across all moving-image formats, from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, to Judy Garland in blackface, to numerous stomach-churning cartoon depictions. Lee has spent the entire film operating from two different formal contrasts, which rub up against one another in their thematic interplay, and this closing montage achieves the same, saying farewell to Bamboozled by retroactively positing a Venn diagram of content and form. Or, according to Ashley Clark, in his deeply insightful, supplemental essay to the Criterion release: “The montage would be plenty powerful viewed in isolation, but its poignancy is amplified by Terence Blanchard’s simple, melancholic score, and its affectless presentation in the wake of a narrative marked by excess, incoherence, and choleric rage.”

Affectation, to Lee, is malleable, and doesn’t exist exclusively from circumstance, which is what Ashley posits in reference to the film’s conclusion. Lee has endured accusations of excess and indulgence his entire career, but this handful of minutes dedicated to archival footage proves him absolutely right in his methods, that erring towards the extreme and polemical wasn’t as casually jaded as previously thought, but founded in a history of institutional demonization. It was probably easy to shy away and even hide from Bamboozled upon its release, its subsequent home-video distribution, and its eventual falling out of print, given Lee’s then undeserved critical status as an irrationally angry black man, and for the film’s unforgiving experimentation. As seeing Bamboozled restored now makes clear, its inquiry into perception and even the general myth of image-making is prophetic, the results unassailable. Bamboozled doesn’t establish a standard of quality, given that nothing has truly ever mimicked its oscillating visual tones since, but it does stand firmly at the center of Lee’s filmography, a point of which all roads of the necessarily iconoclastic director run through.