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WARNING - SPOILERS BELOW.
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is tired. Tired of the fact that the network that he works for will not produce anything he has written. This uptight Harvard grad is the only black writer at the network and each time he writes a treatment for a project about "educated and responsible negroes", it gets shot down. Eventually he ends up getting chewed out by his boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) because Dunwitty wants ratings and nothing more. Dunwitty wants something "real" and "cutting edge". Something he doesn't think that Delacroix is up to. After all he is married to a black woman and grew up in a black neighborhood, so he is blacker than Delacroix. This assumption burns Delacroix's butt. He can't quit (he has a mortgage, you know), but he can get fired. He decides to make what he calls "a variety show for negroes".
Pierre enlists the help of his assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and together they set out to make this show. Sloane doesn't like it at all, but she supports him. She trusts in him when he tells her that the show will be so offensive that no one will have the guts to show it on the air and that'll be the end of it. They hire two street performers to play the title roles of ManTan and Sleep-N-Eat. The two performers are always just this side of homeless. Man Ray (Savion Glover) lives to tap dance and Womak (Tommy Davidson) just wants to be able to live a decent life. Both of them are taken aback when they are told the scope of the roles they will be playing, but they feel that it's a small price to pay in exchange for getting out of poverty.
Meanwhile, Sloane's brother Julius (Mos Def) has changed his name to Big Black Africa and has a rap group called the Mau Mau's (sounds like wow but with an "m") who fashion themselves as revolutionaries. They sit around and ponder the meaning of Black and have put themselves in a position to decide who is black and who isn't…never mind the fact that they have a white rapper in their group. When "ManTan - The New Millennium Minstrel Show" to everyone's surprise, becomes a hit, The Mau Mau's are determined to put an end to it.
Rarely am I left speechless. This is one of those times. I wasn't sure that I was going to see this movie. I wavered until Thursday. You see, I'm not a Spike Lee fan. After "Malcolm X", which is brilliant, I just wasn't feeling him. I don't quite know why, but at any rate that was the last theatrical release of his I had watched until this summer. Yes I know, support our own, but I just wasn't feeling Spike. I'm glad I went to see it.
This is the hardest review I have ever had to write. I'm not entirely sure what Spike was getting at. It's not that I didn't understand the movie, it's just that there were at least a half a dozen ways to look at it. I'm sure this was the point. I think he wants us to discuss his film and I think he wants each of us to have a different experience. There are no "right" answers.
Some people have blasted this film because they think that Spike is trying to decide who is black and who isn't. I didn't see it that way. In fact I saw it just the opposite. The Mau's Mau were the ones that were deciding who was black and who wasn't and they were hypocrites, as evidenced by their white group member. I think that was his way of saying that it's ridiculous to even attempt to arbitrarily decide who is what. Although he did make it a point to call those who loved the show, "negroes". This has been a matter of discussion among the African-American community. Some people believe that some black folks have a slave mentality and therefore are a Negro. Was he trying to say that people who tune into the "idiot box" and watch UPN and WB sitcoms are negroes?
I had a hard time with the NPM ("n" word per minute), but I think Spike was trying to point out to us that to some people no matter how high you rise, you will always be one in their eyes.
Things that confused me; why was he slamming Tommy Hillfiger? He called him Timmy Hillnigger and had everyone rushing out to buy his clothes. Is it Tommy's fault? Should Spike's anger be more directed at the people buying the clothes? Why did he dis Ving Rhames? So what if the man gave away his reward. It was his to do so as he pleased. Spike may just be shooting himself in the foot by alienating many of the black actors in Hollywood.
Things that I understood loud and clear were his denouncement of "a liquor store on every corner". The primary sponsor of the show was "Da Bomb" Malt liquor- 125% proof. The Mau Mau's were talking about what ails the community at the same time they are downing a 2-liter bottle of that stuff. One of the billboards on the screen showed people in a stance to be frisked - it was for "Da Bomb". The other thing that I heard loud and clear was Dunwitty's proclamation that he felt that it was okay to use "nigger" because he grew up in a black neighborhood and had a black wife. Besides we call each other nigger so what does it matter? Thank God, I don't use that word. I hope that the young people who go see this movie at least get that part and stop using it, but I doubt it. Bottom line is that this is a no win situation and it's tragic for all involved.
I don't know all the answers. In fact, I don't know any of the answers, but I do know that it is still making me think and making me examine myself. This, I believe is what Spike Lee intended.
Stop shuckin' and Jivin' and go see this movie.
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