Since the late '90s, former Village Voice jazz critic Stanley Crouch has been the main spokesperson (or media assassin) for a school of black aestheticians whose central members are the late novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison, the sociologist and jazz critic Albert Murray, the jazz and classical musician Wynton Marsalis, the late painter Romare Bearden, and jazz pianist Marcus Roberts. These men (sadly, there are no women in this group) find their inspiration from Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, the Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer, the French existentialist André Malraux, and the German modernist Thomas Mann. Though entirely black, the school emphasizes their American identity far above their skin color. They also prefer the designation Negro over African American, and claim that real jazz came to an end in 1969 when saint/ sinner Miles Davis abandoned it for the noise and glamour of the rock world.
The school has two big cultural agendas: (1) to establish jazz as the only serious art in America; (2) to rewrite American cultural history in such a way that blacks stand out as the primary historical producers of serious and popular art in America. Now what does all of this have to do with Spike Lee's Bamboozled? Everything. To give its big agendas coherence and meaning, this school of aestheticians, which I will call the New York School of Negro Aesthetics (NYSNA), ordered the world of black art (music, film, novels) into two distinct parts: great black art and bad black art.
A work of great black art, according to the NYSNA, does not announce that it's black art, but American art--it is not inspired by the "ring of the cash register," but rather by what Crouch once described as "democratic imperatives." Weak black art, on the other hand, is like the black-power poetry of the '60s, meaning it's didactic; or, as James Baldwin once put it in his famous essay on Richard Wright, it's nothing more than a political pamphlet. According to this rigid and perfect law of the black arts, Spike Lee's race films fall on the bad side of things: His race movies always announce themselves as being black art instead of American art, they are monological instead of democratic, they are preachy instead of complex, and they always dance to the ring of the cash register.
Bamboozled--which is Spike Lee's most ambitious race film yet, and, as a consequence, his worst film to date--is about a 21st-century minstrel show that becomes a huge hit for a small upstart TV network. The film is terrible at every level! It does not have a single human being in it, substituting instead a collection of block representations (the white executive who is down with blacks, the black executive who is up with whites, the ambitious bitch who wants to get in on the action) who move through the film like a herd of clumsy, plodding, monster elephants. The film's digital camera work is lazy and uninspired. And though the jazz score is beautiful and dreamy, it's way out of place in this harshly lit mess called "the real world." (One of the problems with digital films is they can't handle great scores--only weak scores can complement their generally weak images.)
Now, the big question is this: Why did Stanley Crouch praise this film, which by his own NYSNA standards is a perfect example of bad black art? Because Stanley Crouch is an opportunist! Realizing that denouncing Bamboozled would not shock his readers, he opted to praise it for the sake of producing a shock! This is Stanley Crouch's real game: He is a shocker. And those of us who believed there was real substance in his books, that he was inspired by the most noble American ideas, have been, sadly, bamboozled.