Spike Lee shocks with wild race tale

Edgy 'Bamboozled' pushes satire to its limits

A friend of mine once likened a Spike Lee movie to an overloaded truck.

It's piled too high, it's going too fast, it tilts precariously as it speeds around the bends, and sometimes it hops the curb and sends pedestrians running for their lives. But it's exciting to watch, your eyes are riveted to its every move, and you have to admit you've never seen anything like it.

Lee outdoes himself in his new picture, "Bamboozled," which is like several of those overloaded trucks piled on top of one another. By any conventional standard, it's an overstuffed, overambitious jumble. Yet it has more pungent themes, and takes more cinematic risks, than any other movie on the current scene.

It's a vintage Lee production: sometimes brilliant, frequently infuriating, never dull, and so jammed with provocative ideas that you're uncertain whether to yell "Right on!" or throw your popcorn at the screen.

Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, an African-American writer who's determined to turn his creative talent and Ivy League education into a successful media career. He's taken a job at a cable TV network with perilously low ratings. A bold new concept is needed in a hurry to reverse its slide.

Pierre decides he has two options: present his bosses with the wildest idea he can dream up - on the theory that only an aggressive gamble can save this rapidly sinking ship - or make the ship sink even faster, but save his own skin, by getting fired before it goes down for good.

He puts both plans into operation by designing a show so outrageously awful that the network will self-destruct, and he'll watch the disaster from the safety of his next job.

It's the idea Pierre pitches that makes "Bamboozled" such an audacious satire. The entertainment industry has made a fortune by exploiting African- Americans through demeaning images, he reasons. So he'll reach directly into that long, disheartening heritage and steal its most shameless tricks.

Hiring a couple of gifted black performers, he makes them conspicuously blacker - with large dollops of burnt-cork makeup - and christens their act "The New Millennium Minstrel Show," surrounding them with every humiliating clich he can find.

Surely this travesty will crash in the ratings, the offending network will zoom into oblivion, and Pierre will move on to more meaningful projects? Just the opposite: The show is a smash, racist images and epithets become the hottest thing in entertainment, and Pierre finds himself the most controversial guy in town.

Lee says "Bamboozled" was inspired by "Network" (1976) and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), two classics of media-minded cinema. He must also have thought of Mel Brooks's farce "The Producers" (1968), about two Jewish con artists who stage an outlandish show ("Springtime for Hitler") that foils their swindle by becoming a box-office hit.

What sets "Bamboozled" apart from these precedents is Lee's willingness to push his satire beyond ordinary limits of taste. Scene after scene mixes in-your-face comedy with over-the-top plot twists and outspoken social commentary, and Lee backs it all up with a barrage of film clips and other artifacts with blatantly racist messages - that makes the movie as impossible to dismiss as it is disturbing to watch.

"Bamboozled" is a unique blend of history and hysteria. Is it entertaining, or educational, or both, or neither? How willing are you to engage with a filmmaker who insists on following his convictions to extreme conclusions?

The picture's box-office prospects may benefit from its raucous humor and first-rate cast: Wayans as the protagonist, Jada Pinkett-Smith as his assistant, Savion Glover as the minstrel-show star, and Michael Rapaport as the network chief.

But its long-run significance rests on the dead-serious themes beneath its flamboyant surface.

Whatever you think of Lee's provocations, remember that the title comes from his hero Malcolm X, in a speech we hear within the movie. "You've been hoodwinked," the black leader tells his listeners about their treatment by mainstream society. "You've been had. You've been took. You've been led astray, led amok. You've been bamboozled."

Are the shock tactics of "Bamboozled" bamboozling us in turn? Or is Lee opening our eyes in ways no commercial filmmaker has ever tried before?

That's for every viewer to decide - and if enough spectators take up the challenge, the coming debate will be as invigorating as anything on the screen itself.

Rated R; contains violence, vulgarity, and large amounts of racist imagery and language.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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