Black TV exec Pierre Delacroix pitches an offensive show to the network, in the hope of confronting America with its racism, and persuades homeless tap-dancer Man Ray to become Mantan, a black-face minstrel clown.
Though Spike Lee would clearly like this movie to remind you of ills-of-TV satires like A Face In The Crowd and Network (there's a spin on the well-remembered "mad as hell" speech), it comes out as a weird, unsatisfying hybrid of Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope and Mel Brooks's The Producers.
Shot Dogme-style on digital video, Bamboozled has a fuzzy, stumbling look which is all too apt for a film that gets so wrapped up in its issues that it never does find focus. It also staggers on for over two hours, not so much wrestling with tricky subject matter as staging repeated, bullet-riddled drive-bys.
With a contrived accent that makes him sound like one of the Thermians from Galaxy Quest, Damon Wayans tries for a complicated character in the token black TV exec trying at once to please and get round his rap-talking white boss (Michael Rapaport). Less confusing, but equally clumsy, are Lee's points about the representation of black people in American entertainment. Tap-dancer Savion Glover (whose footwork is amazing) and sidekick Tommy Davidson swan around the watermelon patch doing slow-witted, old-style darkie schtick, and the film is full of clips from racist cartoons or old movies (pop-eyed fraidy servants, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, in black-face) and grinning black caricature collectibles. But only parodic ads directed at modern black or black-identified consumers (a soft drink called Da Bomb, clothes by white designer Timmy Hillnigger) connect with contemporary ills, and Lee is arguably as guilty as anyone of creating these stereotypes.
With uncharacteristic timidity, Lee doesn't follow his argument through to indict Chris Rock or Martin Lawrence for essentially doing the old, "I's-a-scairt-massah" shuffle in hip-hop threads. The question of where ethnic comedy stops and cruel stereotype begins also gets lost as the cast improv well beyond any given scene's point, and it can all end only with a contrived last act of kidnappings and shoot-outs with the cops.
For Lee completists and tap-dance junkies only.