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Facing up to the past
'Bamboozled' offers unblinking look at race, perceptions
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- To appreciate what Spike Lee hopes to accomplish with his latest film, look back to 1968, when Mel Brooks made his movie debut with "The Producers."
A poorly received comedy, it depicted a pair of Broadway hucksters (the late Zero Mostel and the early Gene Wilder) pursuing a scam to produce a play so offensive it must fail. They dream up a comedy full of singing and dancing called "Springtime for Hitler."
In the comedy "Bamboozled," Lee sets out on the same path. But he wants viewers to think as well as laugh at his efforts.
Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, the only African-American producer at a fictional major TV network. He's been told to produce a huge hit or be handed his walking papers.
Already frustrated that none of his previous concepts has been produced, he decides to escape his contract by creating a show that is certain to be ratings poison: the "New Millennium Minstrel Show."
As anyone who has seen "The Producers" could tell Delacroix, his show becomes a hit of historic proportions.
Blackface masking emotions
The show is a sharp production, headed by Savion Glover, the miraculous dancer and creator of Broadway's "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk." In the film, he gets his first major lead playing Mantan, the minstrel show's star.
(The name is a tip of Lee's cap to Mantan Moreland, a talented African-American comic of the early sound era best known for his popeyed performances as a terrified "darkie" in numerous Charlie Chan movies.)
Glover is remarkable. His performances are fiery and charismatic, and the internal conflicts he brings to the blackface act are visible both in his acting and dancing performances.
There is more than singing and dancing going on, though. Lee's film is a vehicle that recalls images of black Americans in the late19th and early 20th centuries. These are depictions that our more enlightened society has tried to bury, with some success.
And that, says supporting actress Jada Pinkett Smith, is the central issue in "Bamboozled": Some things should not be buried.
"You have to know your past, in order that your past not revisit you again," she said. "... It's Hollywood history, some of the images you see in the movie. That's the biggest problem in dealing with some of the racial issues in America: We all would wish to sit on it and forget about it, but that doesn't create a forum for healing."
Historical footage -- none of it comfortable -- abounds in "Bamboozled." It features shots of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland getting into blackface; of Shirley Temple in a minstrel show; of animated sequences of absurdly stereotyped black characters. They're visuals and information that a lot of people, black and white, might rather see disappear.
"'Disappear' meaning what?" he asks. "Never brought up again? 'Disappear' meaning (to) forgot about? ... I think it's a good thing that it comes back around. It's going to be a wake-up call for some and disturbing to others." In the film,Tommy Davidson plays a sharp-minded creative partner to Glover's character. He becomes Sleep 'n Eat, Mantan's simple foil, in the minstrel productions.
Like Glover, Davidson believes that blackface shouldn't be forever swept away or sealed in a show-business history vault.
"If you're going to do that, then (put) all the images of Nazi Germany and concentration camps ... in there, too. All the images of what happened to Native Americans, ... put that in there, too. And the middle passage and the enslavement of African Americans: Put that in there, too."
Nor does "Bamboozled" limit its targets to old show business indignities. It also asks some probing questions of present-day African-American entertainers, Pinkett Smith says.
"What are we as African Americans?" she asks. "Let's really examine how we are contributing to the projection of our own images of ourselves. What are we really willing to give up? Our integrity? The honor of our community, just for some money? "
In the conclusion of "The Producers," the two scammers are apprehended, punished, and immediately try the same scam again. They apparently haven't learned from their past.
"Bamboozled" looks to do just the opposite -- to remind us of the past so we all may learn."Bamboozled," rated R, opens Friday, October 6 in limited release. New Line Cinema, which produced the film, is owned by Time Warner, which is the parent company of CNN.
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