With this blisteringly funny, unapologetically confrontational satire, writer-director Spike Lee examined the past, present, and future of racism in American popular culture, issuing a daring provocation to creators and consumers alike. Under pressure to help revive his network’s low ratings, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface for a “new-millennium minstrel show.” The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes. Shot primarily on unvarnished digital video and boasting spot-on performances from Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, and Paul Mooney, Bamboozled is a stinging indictment of mass entertainment at the turn of the twenty-first century that looks more damning with each passing year.
Spike Lee’s 2000 satire Bamboozled receives an all new 2K restoration and Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in the aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc (the back packaging indicates 1.77:1 but it does look like the image fills the full screen). It has been encoded here at 1080p/24hz high-definition.
The film is primarily sourced from Mini DV video and it doesn’t translate too well to high-definition (though on DVD it was fine enough). Lee was saddled by budget restraints and had to figure out a way to keep costs down, so it was decided to shoot the film in digital. He did play with the idea of shooting in high-definition but since the film was about the television industry he thought it would make sense to give the film a television look. Standard-definition digital looked too good, so he settled with shooting with consumer grade Mini DV cameras, which had the right crummy look.
This leads to a very ugly looking image, though judging by the film’s content and Lee’s reasoning this is obviously intentional. It also really looks like it was consciously decided to leave the image as-is, because it’s clear no colour-correction has been done (like what was done with recent restorations for other video sourced films like Hoop Dreams and Jacques Tati’s Parade) and nothing has been done to ease any of the artifacts. Most of the film’s running time is laced with numerous artifacts, from ghosting, to trailing, to jagged edges and more. The image is rarely all that sharp, looking blurry consistently throughout the film, while black levels are weak, more grayish in nature, effectively crushing out shadow detail. There are also several moments where pixilation becomes a severe issue, and blocky patterns fill the screen (a few close-ups of Mos Def midway through come off this way). It’s not pretty, and honestly, it would maybe look better to watch the film on DVD and allow your equipment to handle the upscaling.
Of course, this is again all intentional and a byproduct of the technology, so, as Joe Pesci says in The Irishman, “it is what it is.” But Lee also made an interesting choice to film the minstrel performances for the film’s central television program in Super 16mm instead of digital, and it’s during these sequences that the presentation really shines. The first thing that sticks out is how the colours are far more vibrant, more lively, and nowhere near as muted and dull as the colours present during the film’s digital sequences. Reds and oranges pop, as do the blues and other cold colours. Black levels are far better, cleaner and purer with no crushing evident, and the image is razor sharp with an intense amount of detail. Going from the digital look to the film look (which also retains a nice, fine grain structure) is always a bit of a shock as the differences are so extreme. Lee mentions a few times in the supplements how he was trying to capture the beauty in the performances (once you got around the initial dehumanization of the whole thing) and that’s probably why he shot these moments with film, as author Raquel Gates suggest in an interview found on this release.
All said and done, the image ain’t pretty most of the time, looking like it was sourced directly from a video tape with no corrections done, but the moments sourced from film look incredible, and it’s obvious a lot of work went into the restoration for these sequences, all of which suggest this is just how Lee wants the film to look.
The film comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. Everything sticks mostly to the fronts, with some music, ambient effects and some audience moments stretching to the rears. But it’s not showy in this regard and sticks primarily to the fronts. I’m not entirely sure if Lee used a full sound crew for the entire thing or stuck to just using the built in microphones in the cameras for the digital sequences, though I’m going to lean more with the former since I would suspect the audio would be more of a mess if he simply stuck to the microphones in the cameras. There can sometimes be a bit of a tinny sound but most of the film sounds clean, dialogue is easy to hear, and the music (particularly the last number over the montage at the end) is all mixed rather nicely. Like the video it is nowhere near demo material, but it sounds fine and serves the film well.
The film was released back in 2001 as part of the New Line Platinum Series, which was probably one of the better studio specialty lines of the time, as their features were usually more than the typical puff pieces that were always so common with studio releases; the line actually made an effort in their editions, even providing more Academic or film-school like material. Their edition for Bamboozled was a good one and Criterion has wisely ported over a majority of the material (only leaving off the text and DVD-ROM features), while adding some new material to look at the film today’s perspective.
First from the old DVD is Spike Lee’s original audio commentary for the film and it’s an excellent one. There’s a lot to work your way through around the film and Lee is very open in explaining his reasoning behind his choices, and even clarifying things he felt some critics and audiences misunderstood. He shares stories that influenced aspects of the movie or stories from around the time of the film’s release, like being approached by Tommy Hilfiger over the parody of him in the film (though Lee insists the parody is not directly targeted at Hilfiger, it just so happened his name rhymed with a certain derogatory word). I was amused at how he cracks up during a few moments during the film, and I enjoyed his observations on certain moments he captured. Lee, a big film nerd, also likes to point out films that influenced this one, and there’s a wide variety, but the most obvious ones are Network, A Face in the Crowd (he talks a lot about that film’s screenwriter Budd Schulberg), and, most obviously, The Producers. Lee’s very open, and he obviously doesn’t care if he upsets anybody with what he has to say, making it both an insightful, honest, and surprisingly funny track, that also helps in one’s understanding and appreciation for the film. I’m very glad Criterion carried this one over.
To follow-up the commentary, Criterion has recorded a new interview between Lee and critic Ashley Clark discussing the film. Lee does cover some of the same subjects he does in the track, like the film’s influences and his reasoning for doing it, but he expands on other subjects, including his own film school past, where films like Birth of a Nation were taught, but lacking discussion on the socio-political context of that film, which in turn led to one of his student films that also somewhat influenced Bamboozled. He gets into the film’s imagery and presentation of blackface, along with the film’s historical artifacts that pop up within the film. Clark, a huge admirer of the film, also talks about his own personal feelings around the film and how it impacted him in surprising ways. It’s a great conversation, very personal at times, but I must confess the biggest surprise had nothing to do with the film’s subject matter: considering said subject matter I was expecting to hear that New Line was difficult but much to my surprise (and Clark’s by the looks of it) New Line left Lee alone and gave him complete reign over the film. A very brisk 26-minutes.
Manray and Womack is a newly recorded program featuring interviews with the film’s co-stars, Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson. Lee mentions in the commentary and interview that he was looking to work with Glover after seeing his tap-dancing work and his Broadway performance, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, writing the role of Manray specifically for him. Here Glover talks a bit about his work, meeting Lee, and choreographing the dance sequences in the film. Davidson talks a little about the rise of “black popular culture” during the 90s, which included In Living Color, the skit comedy show he was a part of, and then his own casting, which meant he had to learn tap-dance and admits he just couldn’t do it, having to fake it. The two also talk about blackface, the history they learned around it, and the emotional impact it had on them when it came time to apply it (Davidson wasn’t faking it when he was crying in the film). Discussion also leads to other performers in the film, and interestingly Davidson is the only one in the supplements to call out choices Damon Wayans made for his character. One common criticism against the film was Wayans’ accent (I always assumed it was parody but apparently it wasn’t intended as such) and Lee skirts around it in his material elsewhere on the disc, simply saying they discussed certain choices, leaving it at the idea the character is just confused. But Davidson admits he doesn’t know what to make of it and I get the sense he feels it’s a negative against what is otherwise a film he’s proud to be part of. I wish the two could have done a commentary together, because I think it would have been worthwhile to have them talk over the film and focus on specific sequences, but as it is it’s another rewarding addition to the release. It runs about 23-minutes.
Criterion then includes a 10-minute interview with costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who talks about the costumes in the film, particularly the minstrel costumes. She admits to the difficulty (she was horrified how much material there was out there while she was researching) and she worried about the negative imagery but trusted Lee knew what he was doing. She had difficulties with the subject matter but, in the end, she is proud of her work in the film.
Criterion also includes a new interview with author Raquel Gates, here to talk about the history of blackface and the use of it in Bamboozled. She even points out how the routines presented in the film are all based on actual routines, and she also talks about some of the more famous performers of the time (though they were easily replaced if they became too expensive), and the horrible stereotypes around all of it, but also explains the genuine talent that was needed to pull the material off (something the film does address as well). The feature was not what I was expecting since Gates does find positives in the indefensible subject matter (though in no way justifying the act I should add) and she further helps in explaining what Lee was saying with his film, providing more of a historical context outside of what the film already has in it. It runs 18-minutes.
Criterion next carries over the original 53-minute making-of for the film, which is waaaay better than 98% of similar documentaries of the time. There are a number of interviews with members of the cast and crew, which includes Jada Pinkett-Smith, Michael Rapaport and Damon Wayans, who otherwise don’t show up in the supplements. It covers most of the motions of your typical making-of, even getting into the advantages of digital photography (best recognized during the editing stage), but this one also has a number of people pop up to praise the film, including screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and I’d like to think Lee geeked out over that.
Criterion also includes 11 deleted scenes, running 17-minutes. A deleted dance number featuring Glover, mentioned in other features, appears here in its entirety, as well as a cringey moment where crow feet are added to one of the minstrel performances (which becomes not only too much for the audience, but Glover’s character as well). There are also some additional moments around a white, Finnish director being hired to direct the show, which not only offered some rather solid comedic moments from Wayans, but also a good scene between him and Rapaport showing why someone like Rapaport would fee more comfortable with a white man directing it.
The disc then closes with the Da Bomb parody ad and two music videos around the film’s rap group’s “Blak iz Blak” (one is an actual video, the other just seems to be the full sequence from the film). The disc also includes Gerald Levert’s “Dream With No Love.” There is then a 2-minute self-playing photo gallery featuring posters for the film and then the television program from the film, and the disc closes with the original theatrical trailer. Ashley Clark also provides an excellent essay in the included insert.
Disappointingly Criterion wasn’t able to get new interviews with other cast members (I would have loved to get new interviews with Pinkett-Smith, Rapaport, and Wayans) but Criterion has still managed to include some great new material to extend on New Line’s original collection of material, creating a satisfying and comprehensive set of supplementary features around the film.
The 16mm segments in the film look striking and fresh, but the digitally filmed material (which makes up a majority of the film) doesn’t look any better than what the original DVD presented. But Criterion’s collection of special features nicely expand upon New Line’s already excellent material and create a more satisfying and comprehensive release.