New York television station CNS needs a hit, and its only black executive, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), is tasked to create it for his objectionable boss, Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Given a brief to make it challenging and memorable, Delacroix enlists the help of his secretary Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith). They choose to exhume the most bizarre of formats – the minstrel show – hoping it will backfire on the company.
Two buskers, Manray and Womack (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), are hired, made over and launched as the hosts of The New Millennium Minstrel Show. It is an instant success. Delacroix is lauded, and CNS rides the wave. But the show angers the city’s black activists and is targeted by militant gangsta rappers Mau Mau. As dissent grows, Manray realises prosperity has clouded his beliefs, and vows to change things. His new bosses have other ideas…
Paying tribute to one of his favourite movies, Network, Spike Lee satirises the small screen’s amorality in fine style. Playing with a small budget and tight schedule, Lee shot the film on 15 digital video cameras, each costing just over $1,000. The result is a tight, documentary-like feature with a gritty core which some said the director had lost since the glory days of Do the Right Thing .
There’s little ambiguity about the key theme (the painful stereotyping of black culture by white media), but Lee shows remarkable clarity in a sub-plot, implying that black America is at least partially complicit in its own downfall. He has trouble keeping such weighty material aloft, but the ambition is impressive in itself. The release of several movies featuring one-dimensional black characters gave Lee another chance for some characteristically blistering opinion. But the most shameful segment is the film’s coda: a trawl through early Hollywood including a blacked-up Judy Garland, which carries more impact than any polemic could ever hope for.
USA | 136 minutes | 2000
Writer and Director: Spike Lee
Tommy Davidson as Womack / Sleep’n Eat
Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Honeycutt
Coati Mundi as Papo
Yasiin Bey as Mau Mau: Big Blak Afrika
Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix
Savion Glover as Manray / Mantan
Jada Pinkett Smith as Sloan Hopkins
Michael Rapaport as Thomas Dunwitty
Cheryl Lynn Bowers as Mona
Paul Mooney as Junebug
Matthew Modine as Himself
Mira Sorvino as Herself
Dina Pearlman as Myrna Goldfarb
and this just in
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