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Spike Lee
Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett-Smith
Writing Credits:
Spike Lee

A frustrated African-American TV writer proposes a blackface minstrel show in protest, but to his chagrin it becomes a hit.

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 136 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/24/2020

• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Spike Lee
• “In Conversation” Featurette
• “Manray & Womack” Interview
• Interview with Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter
• “On Blackface and the Minstrel Show” Featurette
• “The Making of Bamboozled” Documentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Music Videos & Commercials
• Poster Gallery
• Trailer
• Booklet


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Bamboozled: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 7, 2020)

Perhaps every review of a Spike Lee film should consist of only three words: “provocative but unfocused”. Although it seems to be almost impossible for Lee to create a movie that fails to produce controversy, 2000’s Bamboozled stands out even among the rest.

Many of Lee’s flicks deal with racial issues, but Bamboozled ups the ante a bit. It abandons the realism of Do the Right Thing and goes for a satirical look at its subject.

In Bamboozled, Lee looks at how little distance he thinks society has come since the days when minstrel shows were all the rage. At the start of the film, TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) has grown frustrated with his job because he can’t get any apparently-progressive shows off the ground.

In an attempt to get himself fired - he loses his severance package if he quits - Delacroix creates a show so offensive that he knows it’ll never be aired: The Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show.

This program will feature the talents of a pair of street performers with whom Delacroix has become mildly acquainted. Manray (Savion Glover) tap-dances, while Womack (Tommy Davidson) is more of a comedic entertainer.

For the show, these African-Americans have to don blackface and enact some insanely stereotypical skits that all seem to have been written around 1900. For example, they refer to themselves as “two real coons” and when Mantan - a renamed Manray - passes out, his buddy Sleep and Eat (Davidson) rouses him with the scent of a watermelon.

Much to Delacroix’s surprise, his black-wannabe boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) eats up the concept and the network endorses it as well. Not only does Mantan hit the air, but it quickly becomes a national craze, as audiences of all races embrace blackface and the show’s return to a “gentler time”.

Of course, not everyone’s happy with Mantan. For one, Delacroix’s assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) can’t believe all this is happening, and she tries to arrest the show’s progress, albeit in a rather passive way.

With the brief appearance of Johnnie Cochrane and Reverend Al Sharpton as themselves, we see hints of an organized protest, but the main disgruntled faction comes from the Mau Maus, an unsuccessful rap group led by Sloan’s brother (Mos Def). He renounces his given name of “Julius” and insists on being called “Big Black Africa”.

Though they remain largely in the background as Mantan grows in popularity, the Mau Maus eventually decide that they need to take a stand. As such, they choose to perform a terrorist act against the show.

Shades of 1976’s classic Network pop up fairly frequently throughout Bamboozled, as do hints of other films like A Face In the Crowd. Lee openly acknowledges these predecessors - as he should, especially because Bamboozled never feels like a rip-off of them.

It’s not like Lee steals their ideas and repackages them as his own. While the film occasionally directly quotes the older movies, it never plagiarizes them.

Bamboozled becomes a difficult flick to fully decipher. On one hand, its statement is very obvious, as some of its targets are very easy ones, and on the surface, it seems to do little more than tell us that stereotypes and racism are bad.

However, Bamboozled boasts more depth to it than that, though the layers aren’t terribly well constructed. As with School Daze, Lee doesn’t simply look at the race issue as a black and white one.

Indeed, Bamboozled echoes Daze in that it really doesn’t have a lot of scenes in which white opinions of blacks are explored. Do the Right Thing was the bigger avenue for that issue, while Daze focused almost exclusively on the ways blacks interact and view each other.

Bamboozled also gets into that issue in a number of ways, and for one, there’s the “keeping it real” topic. Delacroix changed his name long ago, as he used to be known as Peerless but preferred to go with a whiter appellation. He also affects a stereotypically nasal and uptight demeanor that seems to accompany the way that many blacks view whites.

To a certain degree, Delacroix remains little more than a stereotype himself. Wayans plays him with such butt-clenched fervor that there’s not much room for nuance to escape.

However, we do occasionally see a deeper side of Pierre, and we can tell that some conflict resides within him. He seems to feel little regret about the homier side of life he left behind - he’s largely estranged from his family, mainly represented through his father Junebug (Paul Mooney) - but he struggles with the pressures put on him to straddle the white and black worlds at the same time.

That’s one issue that really could have used more exploration. Some of its symbolism is obvious since Delacroix fails to thrive as a TV writer until he produces the most base, racially offensive show he can imagine.

However, we don’t get too much idea of how he got to this position, since he’s come far enough that he must have done something successful to make it there. The film hints that he sold his soul during the transition from Peerless to Pierre, but it doesn’t provide much depth about the journey.

Instead, we see more indications of how quickly he sells out once he’s on top. Any misgivings Pierre had about Mantan largely evaporate as the world embraces his show.

Bamboozled glances on the issue of culture vs. stereotypes, but it also doesn’t go into much depth. Frankly, I find it somewhat mystifying to detect the difference between acceptable comedy and offensive pigeonholing.

While Mantan is so insanely over the top that it leaves no doubt, there are other examples in the film that seem less clear. As lampooned during the movie, Lee clearly dislikes a lot of rap, and on this disc’s audio commentary, he refers to many rap artists as the minstrel performers of today.

Granted, it’s not Lee’s job to provide all of the answers, and Bamboozled definitely provides more questions than solutions. That shouldn’t be regarded as a bad thing, for while it can be rather muddled and unfocussed at times, Bamboozled offers one of the more thought-provoking pieces I’ve seen. Lee probably will never make a seamless film, and frankly, that’s okay with me.

Yes, some of his missteps can be glaring, and Bamboozled can go from hilariously insightful moments to moronically obvious ones in rapid succession. For example, some of the Mau Mau scenes are terrific in the way they lampoon parts of the culture.

However, another segment in which the film mocks their lazy speaking style goes on too long. We hear an apparently incessant stream of “y’knowwhatImean?”/”y’knowwhatI’msayin’?” before this lame gag concludes.

Still, Bamboozled provides some solid laughs and it moves well between comedy and drama. At times, Terence Blanchard’s score seems too dominant, especially early in the movie.

During those segments, the music seems omnipresent, and this presence feels counterproductive. I notice the score much more than I should have, and it takes me out of the scenes.

However, as the film progresses, the music blends more smoothly with the action, and Blanchard’s work can offer excellent accompaniment at times. The track brings a gently mournful quality that makes it perfect to go along with some of the movie’s elements such as the images of racist products.

If there’s one thing I like about Spike Lee, it’s his willingness to go after all sides of a problem. Many have berated Lee for his apparent racism in the way he’s treated non-black ethnic groups with films like Mo’ Better Blues and Summer of Sam.

However, I really think that Lee’s an equal opportunity filmmaker, which is why blacks often get the brunt of his attacks. Lee doesn’t solve the world’s problems with Bamboozled, but the film certainly will provoke debate.

In addition, it’s often an interesting, entertaining satire. Yes, the movie’s too long and rambling - kind of like my review - but it does more right than it does wrong. It’s not Spike Lee’s best film, but it’s definitely one of his more compelling efforts.

The Disc Grades: Picture C/ Audio B/ Bonus B

Bamboozled appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Due to the source, this became a less than appealing visual presentation.

Much of the movie was shot on digital video cameras (Mini DV), with a limited resolution. All of the Mantan New Millennium Minstrel Show excerpts were filmed with 16mm equipment, but Mini DV dominated the flick, a fact that led to some picture concerns.

When I looked at those elements, sharpness became a persistent issue. Close-ups looked passable, but everything else seemed fuzzy and soft.

Due to the lower resolution featured by video, many examples of moiré effects and jagged edges cropped up, and the film often took on a blocky appearance. Digital artifacts popped up, and edge haloes occurred due to the flaws of the source.

In terms of the video footage, the hues of Bamboozled always appeared drab and flat. They seemed ugly and messy.

Black levels also appeared murky and muddy, and shadow detail was thick. Again, the nature of the DV source led to these issues.

At least those occasional 16mm shots worked better. These offered largely positive sharpness, as only a little softness impacted the film elements, and they lacked jagged edges, moiré effects or print defects.

Colors looked strong for the filmed shots, as they boasted nice vivacity. Blacks seemed deep and dark as well, so the 16mm components satisfied.

Too bad the vast majority of the flick opted for that dated, ugly DV footage. With a movie like Bamboozled, I need to deal with the conflict between the accuracy of the transfer and the objective appeal of the image.

I gave the picture a “C” as a way of throwing in the towel. While I think the Blu-ray represented the movie as intended, it’s just too much of a mess for me to commit a higher grade to it.

I thought film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack worked well for the material, with a soundfield that seemed largely focused upon the forward channels. Music boasted nice stereo spread, while effects created a good sense of environment.

The surrounds didn’t play a major role, but they fleshed out the settings, especially in the TV studio or clubs. Nothing here dazzled, but the soundscape seemed appropriate for the story.

Audio quality appeared positive, as speech felt consistently warm and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were similarly accurate and lively, and they more than adequately conveyed the necessary information.

Music boasted the strongest fidelity of the lot. Terence Blanchard’s score appeared clean and smooth, while the various rap tunes blasted tight and loud low-end.

In that realm, the bass really thumped at times, and the dynamic range of the entire track seemed strong. This was a quality mix for this tale.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the original DVD? The lossless audio felt a bit warmer and more expansive.

Visuals became a more complicated issue, as the Blu-ray revealed the problems more abundantly than did the DVD. The natural limitations of the latter hid the issues more easily than the higher resolution of the Blu-ray.

On the positive side, the Blu-ray made the 16mm film look better, as those shots appeared more accurate and livelier. The DV footage showed no clear improvements, though, as the source lacked real room for growth.

Because of the superior presentation of the 16mm material, I’d endorse the Blu-ray over the DVD. However, no one should expect anything other than an ugly presentation much of the time, as there’s no silk purse to be made from this sow’s ear.

This Criterion release mixes old and new extras, and we open with a running, screen-specific audio commentary from writer/director Spike Lee. Lee can be a dull participant in these proceedings, and I started this track with a little trepidation.

While the commentary definitely seems spotty and inconsistent, Lee actually manages to provide enough information to make it generally interesting. Bamboozled features more than a few gaps between Lee’s remarks, and he also often does little more than state the names of actors or their characters.

However, Lee seems lively at times during this piece, as he brings some good interpretation of the film and also goes into details that relate to the production. Not one to shy away from detractors, Lee addresses some of his critics, and he provides an interesting discussion of the movie’s controversies.

Lee even adds a funny impression of Tommy Hilfiger that related the events of the latter’s reaction to the film’s “Timmi Hilnigger” character. Ultimately, I don’t think this turns into a great commentary, but it merits a listen.

From the original DVD, a documentary called The Making of Bamboozled runs for 53 minutes, 20 seconds and it combines the usual mix of film clips, interviews, and shots from the set.

The interviews involve Lee, director of photography Ellen Kuras, editor Sam Pollard, archivist Judy Aley, production designer Victor Kempster, and actors Savion Glover, Damon Wayans, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tommy Davidson, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Michael Rapaport.

We also hear from folks not formally associated with the film such as columnist Jack Newfield, writer Budd Schulberg, critic Stanley Crouch and historian Clyde Taylor. These participants add a level of subtext to the piece that otherwise might not have been apparent.

Those involved with the production discuss story/characters and satirical elements, cast and performances, influences and research, sets, photography and the use of Mini DV cameras, editing, music, and related elements. The others offer some useful perspective as well in terms of social/historical connections and commentary.

While not the meatiest documentary, “Making” works pretty well. It gives us good insights and enough footage from the set to succeed.

11 Deleted Scenes span a total of 17 minutes, four seconds. For the most part, these seem interesting to see.

However, I don’t think any of the pieces become terribly fascinating or valuable, and some get a bit redundant at times. Still, it’s good to see unused material, and some of the parts feel fairly compelling.

Originally presented as deleted scenes on the DVD, we find commercials. These include three for “Da Bomb” (1:55) and three for “Timmy Hilnigger” (2:55).

The differences among the various Hilnigger and Bomb ads feel pretty small. I can’t imagine I’d ever be interested in watching them again

In addition, we discover the movie’s theatrical trailer plus three music videos. One of these if for Gerald Levert’s “Dream With No Love”, and it’s a pretty bland piece. Levert wanders around and lip-synchs while we occasionally see snippets of the film.

We also find two versions of the Mau Maus’ “Blak Iz Blak”, and they’re fairly blah as well. However, it’s always fun to see more of the Maus, so I won’t complain.

A Poster Gallery offers a two-minute, 37-second running compilation. It brings 30 promotional images and becomes a good collection, though I wish Criterion had re-transferred these as stills so we’d see them in higher quality.

All the material above appeared on the 2001 DVD, but the rest of the extras are new to the Criterion Blu-ray. In Conversation provides a 2019 chat between Spike Lee and critic Ashley Clark.

During this 25-minute, 41-second piece, they discuss the project’s origins/goals and development, Lee’s student film precursor to Bamboozled and influences, story/characters, production areas and retrospective thoughts.

Though some of the info repeats from the commentary, this becomes a more concise overview. Add to that a different perspective from 20 years later and this turns into an effective, informative reel.

Manray & Womack runs 22 minutes, 54 seconds and delivers a circa 2019 piece with actors Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson. They cover their characters and performances as well as reflections on the film in this engaging look back at the movie.

Next comes a 10-minute, 30-second Interview with Costume Designer Ruth Carter. She tells us about her career, her work with Lee and her choices for Bamboozled via this useful discussion.

Finally, On Blackface and the Minstrel Show spans 17 minutes, 38 seconds and involves film professor Racquel Gates. She relates historical perspective in relation to Bamboozled. Expect a pretty good overview.

A booklet fleshes out the set. It presents credits, art and an essay from Ashley Clark. This addition finishes the package well.

While not Spike Lee’s best film, Bamboozled becomes one of his most thought-provoking. This satirical offering takes a vicious look at racism in entertainment and other areas, and though it suffers from inconsistency, it’s still a compelling program. The Blu-ray provides good audio and supplements along with accurate but ugly visuals. Don’t expect real visual improvements from the DVD, but this still turns into a nice release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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