Bamboozled

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Bamboozled

In the wake of The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer, UPN's short-lived and vigorously protested sitcom about Abraham Lincoln's wisecracking black butler, many were left to wonder just how much progress had been made since the days of Amos 'N' Andy. Always vocal about the depiction of blacks in the entertainment media, director Spike Lee spoke out against the racial stereotypes in Pfeiffer and Fox's ghettoized animation series, The PJs. His anger carries over into Bamboozled, a would-be social critique about a disgruntled TV writer who tries to sabotage an upstart network by reviving an offensive minstrel show, only to watch it become a runaway hit. If the premise sounds familiar, that's because Lee has lifted it from The Producers, a Mel Brooks comedy in which Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder deliberately oversell a musical tribute to Hitler in the hopes that it will become the worst flop in Broadway history. With far more contemporary resonance than its predecessor, Bamboozled has the makings of incredibly potent satire, but good luck finding one in Lee's craven, shapeless blob of provocation. Running at what may be the loosest 135 minutes in cinema history, the script is rife with half-formed ideas; shot on digital video, it looks like a rehearsal of the first draft of the worst film Lee's ever made. The bad decisions begin with casting Damon Wayans as the sole black writer at a ratings-starved network, then having him speak with a Caucasian accent to rival Eddie Murphy's day-as-a-white-man sketch on Saturday Night Live. Over the objections of his conscientious assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith), Wayans tries to bring down his career and the network with an "edgy" show called Mantan, The New Millennium Minstrel Show. Ironically, the weekly variety series, set on a plantation and starring a pair of homeless street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) in blackface, is an instant success. By evoking such blatant racism, Bamboozled seems primed to attack its current persistence in more subtle forms, but Lee stops short of pointing the finger, saving his real venom for past offenses. If anyone needs a refresher course on hurtful stereotypes from The Birth Of A Nation to J.J. on Good Times, the film includes an informative montage on the subject. But those hoping for something of actual relevance are encouraged to look elsewhere.