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Race riot

Spike Lee invokes guilty giggles with a modern minstrel show in Bamboozled

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A scathing comedy that has Spike Lee pushing the shock-shame hysterical-laughter buttons like a race-issue Dr. Frankenstein, the fiendishly clever Bamboozled manages to be both witty and deep, taking viewers on a roller coaster ride of equal parts guilty chuckles and cultural enlightenment. Damon Wayans stars as Harvard buppie Pierre Delacroix whose failing television network is in trouble if he can't come up with a viewer-enticing gimmick. Anxious to get out of a dismal racket and rid himself of an obnoxious "down with the black thing" boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), whose office is a shrine to PC chic with blown-up photos of black athletes and African-American folk art, Delacroix comes up with a concept sure to get him canned: A modern-day minstrel show in which black folk shuck and jive in blackface for a live TV audience. Much to Delacroix's horror, "Mantan the New Millennium Minstrel Show" becomes a runaway hit.

For Lee, the film and a character like Dunwitty show how easily fascination with black culture can be transformed via the media into exploitation. "[I have] never said that black culture is just for black people. Culture is for everybody. But for me there's a difference between appreciating one's culture and appropriation of it," notes the director.

A film that equally indicts white Americans for creating stereotypes in forms like the minstrel show and African-Americans for perpetuating them, Bamboozled is also a mini-visual history of America's homegrown racist kitsch, from musician Emmett Miller to Amos 'n' Andy to Shirley Temple soft-shoeing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, to even "The Jerry Springer Show." Lee manages to link a seemingly archaic entertainment form -- the black minstrel show -- to a contemporary culture that takes it into the marketplace in Lee's viciously hilarious send-up of ghetto entrepreneur Tommy Hilfiger, a fictitious genocidal nuclear malt liquor, "Da Bomb," and gangsta rap, one of the prime offenders in the media overload of negative African-American imagery, according to Lee.

"You don't even have to listen to the lyrics," says Lee, looking like a 10-year-old kid slumped in his chair and sipping from a glass of Coke while he speakas. "Just turn the sound down and look at the stuff: the Bentleys, the Cristal flowing, you got to have those shots where you throw hundred dollar bills at the camera, your scantily clad 'hos' and 'bitches' grinding to the beat. I think that's a modern day minstrel show."

Lee was in Atlanta recently to promote Bamboozled, a reassertion of the director's status as one of the American cinema's unapologetic guns-blazing truth-tellers, blowing the dust off history books and hacking into the corrupt language of the mass media. Early on, Lee says, he absorbed the messages passed down to him from his Spelman-educated mother.

"Things started to change for me when I was very young, when my mother told me I cannot watch Tarzan films. This guy running around is not no king of no jungle."

And Lee remains just as skeptical of the stereotypical treatment of African Americans today -- more dignified than the "plastic bones, the made-up language, the grass skirts" of the Tarzan "natives" but just as insulting. "I'll tell you what bothered me: The Green Mile." Asked about the most repellent recent instance of stereotyping he's seen in movies lately, he doesn't hesitate to peg Michael Clarke Duncan's role in that popular hit. "That was a happy slave. When I saw that film I knew he was getting nominated, I knew it."

Though Bamboozled bogs down in its final third with an increasingly twisty, unnecessarily violent denouement, and as the tone goes from showing comedy's subversive potential to heavy-handed sermonizing, Lee's film remains a genuinely subversive, adventuresome fantasy of what happens when a nation that refuses to acknowledge the mistakes of the past ends up repeating them.

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