dir-scr Spike Lee
with Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Paul Mooney, Sarah Jones, Gillian Iliana Waters, Mario Macaluso, Susan Batson
release US 6.Oct.00; UK 6.Apr.01
NewLine 00/US 2h15
Spike Lee takes on another seriously important issue here, raising questions and ideas that definitely need to be talked about. And yet his complete lack of subtlety leaves the film feeling pushy and petulant. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) is the only black writer at a struggling TV network. Although with his Ivy League background and affected highbrow accent, he's whiter than his boss (Rapaport)! Ordered to come up with something groundbreaking, Pierre hires two street performers (Glover and Davidson) and launches a series based on the old blackface minstrel shows, reviving every conceivable racist stereotype from Sambo to Aunt Jemima. He's hoping for controversy, so he's a bit stunned when the show becomes a national sensation.
Shooting on video with a near-improvisational style, Lee's confrontational filmmaking seems ideally suited to this kind of material, combining sharp satire with harsh drama as it examines the sorry state of African-American characters on television. He seizes every "negro" icon, shoves it in our face and shatters it forever; in this way the film is important and filled with raw vitality. Yet the utter lack of irony makes it also feel forced and preachy, even though Lee is smart enough not to draw obvious conclusions. He jabs his own subculture just as much as he invokes "white angst" with the incessantly bigoted imagery. Much of the film is extremely funny, even as we squirm at the horrific stereotypes on display, both in the minstrel show and in the film itself. Wayans never quite emerges beyond a comedy sketch character, but the rest of the cast is terrific. Glover and especially Davidson shine as the two artists who gradually realise how serious this game is. Perhaps Lee's biggest mistake is to never take the issue beyond his insular world (Asian, Latino and Eastern Europeans stereotypes are just as bad!). By relaxing and opening up his approach just a little he could have said much more.