Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2000. New Line Cinema, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks. Screenplay by Spike Lee. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Produced by Jon Kilik, Spike Lee. Music by Terence Blanchard. Production Design by Victor Kempster. Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter. Film Editing by Samuel D. Pollard.
A television producer with lofty ideals (Damon Wayans in an inexplicable performance) is tired of network executives ignoring his proposals for expanding the presence of black characters on television, telling him instead to stick to tired ghetto stereotypes. Frustrated at his inability to make his fantasies of a more diverse entertainment landscape come true, Wayans decides to pull a Producers and put on a show that he thinks is guaranteed to get him fired and set him free: he hires two street artists (Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover) to host a comedy variety show in full blackface and present the kind of racist characterizations that hail back to the days of Stepin Fetchit. Wayans’ out of touch boss Michael Rapaport thinks the idea is genius, assistant Jada Pinkett Smith (who is excellent) is baffled, and the actors are concerned but excited to get a chance at stardom so quickly. To Wayans’ horror and the network’s delight, the show is a huge hit that has live audiences showing up week after week in blackface to enjoy the duo’s stylings, which eventually leads to his own spiraling deeper into his own personal rage.
The lack of subtlety with which director Spike Lee tells this story, an in your face style common to his films that makes them so refreshing, is as much a blessing as it is a curse here: Lee very blatantly challenges the defense that television and film producers often use, that content is dictated by audience demand when in reality audiences can be lead into making just about anything a hit, but the violence that the film eventually gives in to after the show becomes a hit contributes to a messy and preachy conclusion. Wayans is hard to watch with that ridiculous accent and sitcom delivery, out of step with more organic performances around him that, especially in Pinkett’s case, provide a sense of relief, while Davidson’s excellent work makes up for the fact that Glover is a far better dancer than actor (not much of a negative criticism, really, considering that Glover is a far better dancer than most of us). Thanks to explosive content that made funding difficult to secure, Lee worked on a low budget that involved shooting quickly using multiple home movie cameras, and as digital cameras weren’t too sophisticated at the turn of the millennium, the film is further hampered by an unpleasant visual quality that one must simply decide to put up with in order to enjoy its assets.
The Criterion Collection: #1019
Berlin Film Festival: In Competition
Toronto International Film Festival: 2000