Massa Disaster

Spike Lee’s blackface farce, Bamboozled, degenerates into one big lecture. Two FamilyHouse flaunts its white-liberal romanticism. Meet the Parents milks the Jewish-boy-and-shiksa shtick. 

Directed by Spike Lee
New Line Cinema

Two Family House
Directed by Raymond De Felitta
Lions Gate Films

Meet the Parents
Directed by Jay Roach
Universal Pictures

Satire is a cold and sometimes merciless form, but at its most penetrating it’s not without empathy: Even the angriest satirist must on some level embrace his or her target in order to be able to demolish it definitively. What happens when a satirist remains righteously aloof can be viewed in the new Spike Lee “joint,”Bamboozled, which is one of the least entertaining satires ever made. Although Lee launches the film with a voice-over definition of the form, the movie he has written and directed hardly qualifies: It’s more like a Faustian melodrama that degenerates into a finger-wagging—and tedious—diatribe against Uncle Tom-ism. Bamboozled confirms Lee’s status as our reigning cultural commissar, and cultural commissars don’t traditionally nourish satire—they smother it.

Lee’s protagonist, an African-American TV executive named Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), is presented from the outset as a figure of fun, but once you’ve snickered at his finicky wardrobe, Ivy League accent, and omnipresent Harvard coffee mug, there’s little left to register and two hours to go in the movie. Delacroix (referred to by all as “De-La”) doesn’t want to appear too black, which puts him at odds with his thuggish boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a white man who uses hip-hop slang (liberally sprinkled with the “N word”) and surrounds himself with giant portraits of African-American sports stars.

Ordered by Dunwitty to create a cutting-edge black entertainment program, De-La contrives a scheme—à la Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler”—to get himself canned: a weekly variety series modeled on 19th- and early 20th-century minstrel shows, complete with blackface, watermelon-patch sketches, and a backup band called the “Alabama Porch Monkeys.” De-La enlists a couple of street musicians to star in The NewMillennial Minstrel Show: the vastly talented hoofer Manray (Savion Glover), renamed Mantan for the ‘40s black film star Mantan Moreland, and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who will bear the evocative moniker “Sleep ‘n’ Eat.”

The joke, a good one, is that liberal whites, initially horrified, come to adore the show: Down deep, Lee suggests, they’re enchanted by this nostalgic vision of stereotypical and subservient Negroes, especially when the racism is packaged as sophisticated irony. In light of the series’ runaway success, De-La becomes a “grateful Negro” who sobs while receiving prizes and fawns over white celebrities. It then falls to his stern assistant, Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), to articulate the ways in which he has betrayed his people; to such leaders as Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran to lead the inevitable protests; and to the innate sense of pride in his stars to overcome the desperation and self-loathing that first impelled them to “blacken up.” Bamboozled ends with a flurry of speeches, assassinations inspired by Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), and a long, mournful montage of black actors and actresses forced to debase themselves in the first half of the 20th century.

As a student in the ‘80s at New York University’s graduate school of filmmaking, Lee reportedly unnerved the faculty and his peers with a mischievous project about a black director who gets his big break when he’s approached by Hollywood to remake D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). This was his version of the Faust legend: the parable of an ambitious young man tempted to sell out his race in exchange for vast power and the approval of the white establishment. Fifteen years later, Lee was apparently inspired to return to this scenario by reports of how few African-American writers there are in network TV—an injustice that sent him back to his apparently immense collection of stereotypical Negro memorabilia. It’s tempting to compare him to Batman—a man who becomes a superheroic avenger by keeping his sense of injury alive.

But a sense of injury isn’t enough to illuminate the ways in which the minstrel-show mentality once flourished and has, over time, evolved. Lee can’t find it in himself to contrive an entertaining minstrel act, something that would make the film’s outlandish trajectory halfway plausible. He’d probably regard a routine with big laughs and great singing as another Faustian bargain—as if there’d be a danger of an audience actually responding to those images and calling for their revival. His New Millennium Minstrel Show resembles a weird, sub-Brechtian pageant in which the actors strike poses while at the same time signaling how much they hate themselves: Who could find them diverting? What makes the vaudeville “coons” and their descendants in film and television so tragic is that they often brought joy and real artistry to what they did. This was the only chance they had to be seen and appreciated.

Bamboozled has been shot on digital video, and it’s composed and edited with Lee’s customary resourcefulness, but the technique is at odds with his constricted universe: That chip on his shoulder is fast becoming a tumor. When Mantan sits in front of his mirror and applies his black paint, Lee might as well superimpose a little devil with horns in the corner; and his cuts to Mantan’s frozen smiles on stage recall Joel Grey’s demonic master of ceremonies in Cabaret (1972). Lee makes Glover, a brilliant but chilly technician, seem even chillier. The movie’s satirical high point is a fake rap commercial for “Timmi Hillnigger,” a white-owned line of clothing and accessories into which young blacks pour their money. It works because Lee has made so many commercials for places like Nike that he understands the syntax of selling to black teens—he illuminates as he parodies. Even here, though, there’s something unsavory: The principal difference between “Timmi Hillnigger” and Nike is that Nike pours millions into Lee’s own coffers.

In his other films, Lee makes fun of white people who belittle the contribution of blacks to American culture. In Bamboozled, he makes fun of white people who are obsessed with and revere the contribution of blacks. You can’t win: It’s almost as if Lee is saying there’s no way a white person could ever admire a black celebrity for the right reasons. When the network brings in a Jewish consultant named Myrna Goldfarb (Dina Pearlman) to advise on a public-relations strategy, her mere presence is treated as an affront. In an attempt to defend her perspective, she mentions having lived with a black man and adds that her parents had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala. But Sloan and De-La don’t buy her empathy, and neither does the movie. I’d like to say that any Jews who’d appear in a Spike Lee “joint” are traitors to their people, but I’m afraid I’d sound too much like Lee. Does he want that to be his legacy? He makes it so much easier to resign ourselves to our racism.

Two Family House is just the sort of white-liberal heroism romance that Spike Lee would ridicule as part of the problem. I loved it. I loved it in spite of the fact that, in outline, it’s dubious. The hero is Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli), a Staten Island Italian who could possibly have made it as a crooner for the Arthur Godfrey show (the film is set in 1956) if his wife, Estelle (Kathrine Narducci), hadn’t shamed him into not even taking a shot. Buddy has big dreams of owning his own business that tend to go disastrously awry, which is OK by his spouse, who’d just as soon see him in a safe factory job. When he buys a dilapidated two-family house with the intention of turning the lower floor into a tavern, Buddy discovers he has inherited as tenants a grotesquely belligerent Irish drunk, Jim O’Neary (Kevin Conway), and his pretty immigrant wife, Mary (Kelly McDonald), who is shortly—and stunningly—to give birth to a half-Negro child. When O’Neary totters into the night never to return, Buddy’s conscience slowly compels him to become the caretaker of this disgraced mother and child.

Hmmm. An older wife who’s a repressive enemy of the life force versus an I-believe-in-you tootsie: This is one of the most retro and self-serving male fantasies in film. And the conflict has been contrived so that gravitating to the younger woman is a blow against anti-feminism and racism. But I’m bound to say that I found this particular enemy of the life force one of the most vivid and nuanced I’ve ever seen. As the wife of the restaurateur Artie on The Sopranos, Narducci has had practice playing a stick-in-the-mud, and she makes Estelle an enormously compelling and resourceful stupid woman—someone whose fear of embarrassment makes her brilliant in the cause of dimness.

Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, Two FamilyHouse is, beat by beat, scene by scene, gorgeous—at times emotionally devastating. Buddy is based on De Felitta’s unhappy uncle, and he comes by his goodness blindly, in the Huck Finn manner of someone whose instincts are in small and large ways at odds with the false truths of his culture. De Fellitta is smart enough to make that culture both attractive and repellent: The price of embracing it is one kind of loneliness, the price of rebelling, another. But there’s no doubt which way he should go—especially since Kelly McDonald is heartbreakingly beautiful. The only mystery is how she could ever have ended up with her husband, one of the most rococo drunks in the history of movies. I picture the great ones of years past—Albert Finney, Jason Robards, Dean Martin, innumerable John Ford stumblebums—listening to that belching voice (it’s like Mercedes McCambridge’s demon in TheExorcist) and raising their glasses in awe.

Meet the Parents is a formula comedy about a Jew (Ben Stiller) who wants to marry a rich, WASP-y blonde and accompanies her to her big house on the north shore of Long Island. There, everything conspires to remind him that he’s a Hebrew of zero stature, especially her ex-CIA father—played by Robert De Niro, who’s aging to look like Bela Lugosi. De Niro might not have much left as a serious actor, but he’s hilariously convincing as an overbearing ham who likes to play nasty head games. The movie has a soft windup, but along the way are some of the best-constructed slapstick sequences since There’s Something About Mary (1998), the definitive masochistic male fantasy. And Stiller is such a deft straight man that he makes seething Semitic impotence seem rather sexy. My tribe is maybe too good at making peace with its minstrel shows.