The opening segment of Bamboozled (2000) features a voiceover narration by focal character Pierre Delacroix reading the definition of the word satire. This early moment reveals the film’s intention not merely to function as a satire but to explore the meaning of the satirical. Such self-reflexivity calls to mind postmodernity with its penchant for exploring the construction of narrative. Bamboozled, then, takes a postmodern approach by satirizing satire, questioning the use of irony through its fictitious television show Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.
After several failed proposals, black television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) develops the series premised on one of the most historically racist forms of American entertainment, the minstrel show. Delacroix states that he intends the program as satire, and indeed, the show falls under Lisa Colletta’s definition of satire, which she states, “holds up human vices and follies to ridicule and scorn” (859). Mantan specifically critiques racism through its performance of stereotypes such as the mammy and the Uncle Tom, deploying a particularly postmodern form of irony that Colletta claims results in the “awareness of constructions” that have “replaced awareness of meaning” (856). Mantan, then, functions as a satire within Bambooozled in its hyperbolic explication of a racist form.
But while Mantan critiques the minstrel show through satirical “comedic devices” similar to those described by Colletta–“parody, exaggeration, slapstic”–Bamboozled raises questions about the function of satire through its depiction of audience responses to the show. According to Colletta, “satire’s efficacy relies on the ability of the audience to recognize the irony that is at the heart of its humor . . . if irony is missed, . . . then satire is no longer an effective social critique” (860). Mantan’s audience misunderstands this irony by celebrating the show’s stereotypes through the mimicry of blackface and the parlance of the characters. In effect, the show’s audience reacts by seeing Mantan as, to borrow Colletta’s phrase, “an example of the very thing it sets out to critique” (856).
Bamboozled itself avoids these problems of irony through its self-referential examination of the production and reception of Mantan. Like the similarly satirical Network (1976), which Bamboozled references repeatedly, the film critiques the production of television as inherently fraught due to the profit motive of the industry. Below is the Network trailer:
Again, characters in such scenes invoke satire as both a goal for Mantan but also as a way to evade criticism. During a conference meeting between Pierre and several colleagues, a public relations consultant lists satire as a defense for the show. Combined with the depiction of audience reactions, Bamboozled’s exploration of the production of Mantan suggests that satire becomes a device to permit racism rather than critique it.
As a result, Bamboozled reveals that while different texts may both be considered satirical in their use of a particularly postmodern irony, the success of such usage can differ dramatically, for while Bamboozled’s satire of a satire succeeds, the film depicts Mantan as permitting and perpetuating the very racism it purports to critique.
Colletta, Lisa. “Political Satire and Postmodern Irony in the Age of Stephen Colbert and
John Stewart.” The Journal of Popular Culture 42.5 (2009): 856-874.