Bamboozled: Social Commentary Done Right

There is very few filmmakers today who are able to express genuine outrage in their movies without making it political and needlessly alienating part of their audience. Social commentary is hard to accomplish, mostly due to the constantly shifting media landscape and society. People’s sensitivities and priorities change over time. Audiences have grown to become more ambitious and selective due to the vast variety of content that is out there for them to grab and consume. Some stories are not considered relevant anymore and it’s often a simple matter of turning the other way and losing interest over a particular topic.
Hollywood has a history of wrestling with this kind of social commentary and more often then not, the film industry has failed to address important matters in a compelling, timely fashion. What was once considered social commentary done right, today is a pile of toothless remakes and reboots in the vein of Adam McKay’s horrendously bad and vapid Vice, the prime example of a recent movie aiming for the stars with its commentary on corrupt, capitalist governments and ending up in the garbage because of how genuinely distant it felt from its audience. Hollywood’s status of privilege and wealth often gets in the way of capturing the reality most people live in and thus doing justice to the struggle many experience on a daily basis. Most filmmakers today are not angry enough, and if they are, they are incapable of expressing that anger in a way that makes audiences relate with it. But it didn’t use to be like that. Once a upon a time, there was Spike Lee, carrying the torch of outrage, and his underappreciated entry into the new millennium, Bamboozled from 2000, is an example of accomplished social commentary.

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Spike Lee’s decision to film most of Bamboozled using cheap camcorders strips the movie of any glamour.

Spike Lee is known for a lot of things. He’s a renowned basketball fan, an outspoken civil rights activist, a former film student of Martin Scorsese, and above all, he’s got a history of being mad at America and addressing this simmering anger and frustration through his movies. Ending the 80s with his most popular work, Do the Right Thing where he tackled street violence, and going into the 90s by dishing out the likes of Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers and Summer of Sam, that saw him at the receiving end of an endless stream of threats on his life and his loved ones’, Spike finally came full circle and got his long-deserved Oscar for writing BlacKkKlansman, a movie that re-captured the Spike we all knew and loved – mad Spike, a Spike that does not take no for answer and will let everyone know about it.
As I revisited  Spike Lee’s filmography, I happened to stumble upon Bamboozled, a satire about American television and mediatized racism that seems to have gone under the radar of most audiences since its initial release in 2000. Thanks to the restoration by Criterion, Bamboozled is now available to everyone and is definitely an important piece to the director’s body of work and a vital commentary that is just as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, if not more. The film’s premise is very basic: an African-American TV network writer, Pierre Delacroix, is given the task to make an outrageous show in order to raise viewership in the light of the emergence of Internet, video-games and TV packages responsible for killing traditional television audiences. The show is a blackface minstrel show, an insane concept for daytime TV, but also, in Delacroix’s mind, a strong protest against the powers that be. The show is bound to fail, and yet, to everyone’s surprise, it becomes a huge hit.

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Mantan literally tap-dancing for the white TV executive is one of the film’s most thought-provoking scenes.

Riffing off of Sidney Lumet’s landmark film, Network, Spike Lee’s outrage at America’s cultural core involving a long and prominent history of racist mediatization of African Americans shows the risks that audiences run whenever they press play. Whereas in Network, the truths and ramblings of a failed TV anchor become a national sensation, in Bamboozled the televised manifesto meant to address the evil of American media is twisted into a family show for mostly white audiences. Whereas Sidney Lumet’s film was a reaction to current-day developments (in 1976, obviously) within American TV audiences and their relation to mediatized violence, Bamboozled is much larger and dense in scope: it is an uncompromising attack on the past, present and future of American culture.
Conceived out of spite for his boss who frequently rejected any of his scripts portraying African Americans in a positive light, Delacroix’s blackface minstrel show is filled with racist jokes, insults and the worst kind of stereotypes, all meant to cause a national uproar. The show’s ambition does not go beyond making fun of the two protagonists, ”two Negroes on a watermelon patch” called Mantan, the show’s tap-dancing star and  his friend, Sleep ‘n Eat. The sole mission for this show is to fail. Big time. Get the numbers of viewers up, ”feed the idiot box” and get off the air. This way, Delacroix hopes, he will have been able to finally express himself artistically and make his outrage against American TV a topic of discussion for the general public. However, as I previously mentioned, the show becomes a big hit, and Delacroix’s ideas get taken away from him and manipulated by a roomful of white writers whose job it is to please the audience and turn the show into a product.

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Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become America’s new darlings.

If you thought Spike Lee was pissed in Do the Right Thing, you got another thing coming. In Bamboozled, Spike’s outrage is palpable and contagious. He is mad at a number of things but most of all he is mad at our tendency of imprisoning ourselves within the confines and limits set by what we are fed from a cultural standpoint. Delacroix’s blackface show has no right to exist. It has no right to live and breathe within most American households. Its primitive, evil depiction of African Americans should rightly be punished. And yet, in a country built on slavery and the Three-Fifth Compromise (three-fifths of a person) this is not the case. Even the most hateful form of expression against a whole race becomes a product for daytime TV that audiences can enjoy over a cup of warm cocoa and a bowl of cereal before heading out to work. Soon enough, billboards on Times Square start showing the highly controversial blackface. The two protagonists, Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become cultural phenomenons. Audience members start showing up to tapings of the program wearing blackface and proudly screaming ”I’m a nigger!” on live TV. Through this grotesque, on-the-nose vision of fading morals and a broken down system that thrives on and rewards bigotry and racism, Spike Lee finds himself attacking the core of America’s cultural structure.

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Jada Pinkett-Smith delivers a brilliant performance as a black woman trying to maintain dignity in a world that values everything but dignity.

And here is why Spike’s social commentary is far superior than anyone else’s today: he refuses to make excuses for all involved. Everyone is complicit. From the TV executive that tries to convince Delacroix that he has as much of a right to say nigger as him because his wife is black and his kids are biracial, to the audiences tuning in at home and buying the show’s merchandise, to the black community that is too comfortable and too complacent to act, and those who act, act without thinking rationally, to Delacroix himself who becomes his own worst enemy and starts losing sight of what the show’s initial message was. Because this is what social commentary should be. It should be a reminder that takes no prisoners, a barrage of smart critique that makes you think well after the film is over. Bamboozled did just that. It left me feeling dirty and tired. Complicit. Complicit because I took for granted the misrepresentation of African American culture in Gone with the Wind. Complicit because too many times I’ve said ”It’s just a cartoon,” or ”In those days it was different.” Complicit because I did not do enough research or was too lazy to inform myself. Therefore, one of the people Spike was talking to through Bamboozled, believe it or not, was me. And you.

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Are these really only cartoons? What is their purpose?

Going into more detail about this film would certainly spoil the fun and strip the film of its dense texture (there is really too much to talk about. Spike goes after everybody: Hollywood, celebrities, politicians, misogynists, advertisers, and on and on…).
At the end of the day, social commentary is about provoking the audience rather than teasing. And more often than not, Hollywood settled on teasing. Just think about it. The wildly acclaimed Best Picture winner of 2018 (the same year Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was in the awards race), Green Book, the true story of an African American artist was ultimately manipulated and turned by a team of white writers, producers and director into a family friendly story about the friendship between a black man and a white man. This is what Spike Lee is talking about. This is what we are up against. And in the case of Green Book, Maurice Shirley’s own family spoke out against the misrepresentation of Shirley’s life for the sake of ‘teasing’ (and pleasing) the audience. This is the way it goes. By simply purchasing a ticket to go see a film like Green Book or renting it on a streaming platform, we are complicit in this misrepresentation.
Bamboozled reminds us that these movies, these pieces of culture matter. They have an impact on our perception of reality. By watching movies, reading books, catching up on our favorite shows, we learn about history, day-to-day affairs and our worldview is shaped according to this content.
Bamboozled tells us to ”wake the fuck up.” We can still turn things around.

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”Everyone wants to be a…!”

Boyz n The Hood: Black on Black

When the late John Singleton, who passed away a week ago after battling a series of strokes, directed his first feature film, Boyz n the Hood, thus becoming the first African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar and the youngest nominee (24 years old – 22 at the time the film was shot!) in that category in the history of the prestigious awards ceremony, the public was caught off guard. It was 1991. Los Angeles was soon to become a dystopian war-zone following the 1992 Rodney King riots. LA was in the spotlight, for the wrong reasons, and here he was, a young, black film director from the streets, making a voice for himself and giving voice to those that had not had the right to have one up to that point.
It is important to keep in mind, that almost 3000 miles away, in the far away city of New York, there already was a young, black film student turned director shaking things up. His name was Spike Lee, but Spike, unlike Singleton, was interested in many things simultaneously, and often his work was filled with rage, stereotypes, regret, and most importantly, thematically it was all over the place, thus making it difficult for most everyday audiences to really grasp the world Spike was presenting to them. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s major hit, but its ferociousness, its in-your-face attitude made it somewhat inaccessible for its time. On the other hand, Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s entry ticket to Hollywood, was easier to digest, like a personal diary made available to everyone. And that is what I want to focus on: how John Singleton made the black experience of growing up in South Central Los Angeles accessible to audiences.

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Young black men out to change the world. From left to right: John Singleton, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut.

The black experience in the East Coast had been covered in great detail in crime dramas often disguised as blaxploitation films going all the way back to the 70s, when all of a sudden films that would normally be told from a white perspective were taken apart and reconstructed from the angle of a minority. Films like Coffy or Shaft introduced to worldwide audiences proud members of the black film community such as Pam Grier, Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree that went on to become cult figures in the genre. But, unfortunately, that’s all it was – a genre. And as fun and enjoyable as they were, such films, neatly wrapped in style and action, often failed to convey a larger message about the actual circumstances these characters found themselves in.
Thus, by the end of the 80s, when producers started to take more chances on cheaper, independent films over blockbusters, younger talent emerged – film students from a minority, a marginalized community, like John Singleton that had stories to tell, who insisted on these stories to be told truthfully, were finally offered a chance. This meant only John Singleton could direct Boyz n the Hood, a hood film about a group of young men growing up in South Central LA, a territory infested with drugs, violence, police brutality and street gangs. It was time to shine a light on the black experience in the West Coast, where slowly but surely, black culture was starting to emerge from the ashes mostly through rap music with artists such as NWA and Tupac leading the way.
In one of the first scenes of the movie, Singleton makes the perfect introduction as a black filmmaker; Tre Styles, our protagonist, at this point an 11-year-old boy, after showing boredom and making unnecessary remarks in class, is challenged by his teacher, a pretty white redhead, to stand up in front of the classroom and conduct his own lecture. Young Tre without a second thought rises to his feet and proceeds to walk up to a big world map. He points to the African continent and says ”This is where y’all are from. Where everybody’s from.” The class is in shock. What is this kid talking about? We’re not from Africa, we’re from South Central. Singleton immediately turns the tables around and proves to be in the driver’s seat. This scene is his announcement that the movie that you’re watching is not meant to be watched while munching on popcorn – it is meant to be seen with an understanding, because you might learn something new, something challenging that you, just like the teacher and the rest of the classroom, did not see coming.

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Kids confronted with a bloody reality.

Another aspect that makes Boyz n the Hood accessible is its simplicity in storytelling and the way Singleton uses as a clear reference point Rob Reiner’s hit movie from 1986, Stand by Me, only this time, the director turns the story of four socially-marginalized kids from white-washed Oregon into the story of four black boys from South Central. In Stand by Me the turning point takes place when one of the boys asks, ”You guys wanna go see a dead body?” and the frightened gang follows the friend to the where the body is hidden. In this case, the dead body represents a secret, and a deadly one too, as it is not supposed to be revealed to anyone because then the killer might come out of hiding.
In Boyz, however, when one of the boys, Dooky, asks ”Y’all wanna see a dead body?” the others casually reply ”Yeah. Okay.” When the bullet-riddled, blood-soaked body is revealed to them, they impassively look at it, with the only remark being that it stinks. Here, a victim of a gang shooting is a trivial object, like a souvenir taken from the local context of South Central. The sight of it, even for boys aged 11 or 12, is nothing remarkable. It doesn’t evoke any feelings besides physical disgust. A dead body, unlike in Stand by Me, is no mystery, and this is the first sign of Singleton taking matters into his own hands; he introduces a brand new way of seeing things, as if to say, ”I’m supposed to feel sorry for a bullet-riddled corpse? I’ve seen worse.”

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Out to conquer the world.

After its opening act where the characters are introduced at a young age, the film skips to seven years later, when the boys are in their late teens, and by that time, in South Central you’re expected to be a man, have a family, put bread on the table and act like a grown up. And while a director like Spike Lee is more interested in the flavor and oddity of each character, Singleton’s priority as a director is to tell a story. Most of the characters that are in Boyz resemble each other in many ways; they all have similar backgrounds, fears, regrets, but above all, they all have one goal in common – to get out of there.
Because while Spike’s Brooklyn is a place where the characters feel at home despite many threatening factors such as neighboring gangs and ”nigger-hating” police officers roaming the streets, Singleton’s LA (ranging from South Central to Compton) is a hellhole that everyone wants to run away from. Even the most basic, primitive characters such as Doughboy (wonderfully played by a young Ice Cube) have as their dream neither gangbanging, nor drinking ’till late, nor screwing the most beautiful girls in the area; their dream is to be better, to the point that they can fly out of a place where, as the opening line to the movie states ONE OUT OF EVERY TWENTY-ONE BLACK AMERICAN MALES WILL BE MURDERED IN THEIR LIFETIME. MOST WILL DIE AT HE HANDS OF ANOTHER BLACK MALE. Singleton’s characters are simple and easy to understand, driven by the same thirst to elevate themselves above life-threatening mediocrity.

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Danger around the corner.

Finally, Singleton’s real secret in telling this personal journey of growing up in a tough environment is his understanding of what a general audience wants in a way that will allow him to keep their attention all the way through. In other words, Singleton, unlike Spike Lee (who, lets be honest, loved to light firecrackers in people’s faces with his thought-provoking, twisted and controversial films) at the age of 22, knew exactly how to make a conventional movie, one that despite its difficult subject matter would not stir controversy but welcome viewers with open arms, broadening their vision of what it meant to really struggle in marginalized working class America.
Singleton many times argued that to him Boyz was structured like a Western, meaning it was structured like the oldest tale in the book – a tale filled with moral dilemmas, life lessons and dramatic turns that will lead to an inevitable end. Boyz does just that, with the bandits being the gangbangers that go looking for trouble as they cruise down the street and police officers making death threats to common citizens, the cowboys being the young protagonists desperately trying to take care of their loved ones and protect them from the bandits, and the wise sheriff, who in this case is represented by Tre’s father, Furious (a fantastic Laurence Fishburne), a man who watches over the neighborhood and has come to accept one absolute truth: that African-Americans need to stick together and be aware of their strength as a unit, rather than their strength as individuals.

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Under a father’s supervision.

In most Westerns, the cowboys eventually have to accept their darker survival instincts if they want to defeat the bandits, yet in Boyz Singleton desperately fights this convention, ultimately making his characters suffer and choose different approaches in dealing with the same nagging problem, which is the burden of life in the neighborhood. The question whether a cowboy will become a bandit depends on many factors, and Singleton makes sure to highlight each one of them: love and supervision from relatives, education, a balanced sense of justice, one’s own values and priorities. Like any good director, or artist for that matter, Singleton does not try to put all of his eggs in one basket; instead he makes sure to truthfully depict the many faces of South Central and the many ways one can go about living one’s life in such awful circumstances. This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but numerous movies that thematically tackle street life, street crime and the margins of any society prefer to take the easy way out and put the blame on the system, on a higher power, on the evil eye that watches over us. In Boyz, the 22-year-old film director doesn’t follow suit: he furiously rows up against the stream because the story deserves to be told the right way.
After the movie’s incredible financial and critical success, Singleton’s career did not take off the way everyone imagined. The films he went on to make, from the likes of street melodramas like Poetic Justice to mindless blockbusters like 2 Fast 2 Furious, did not reflect his incredible skill as a director and storyteller, but that is even more of a reason to celebrate the nature of Boyz n the Hood, a hood film that allowed audiences from all over the world to truly grasp a (small) part of the black experience in modern-day America.

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At the end of the day, we’re all looking for the same thing.