December 7 - December 13, 1995

Color Negatives

B y  S t a c e y  R i c h t e r


'White Man's Burden' Isn't The Black-And-White Portrait It Pretends To Be.

FROM THE OPENING credits, where we watch an assembly line of milky candies being coated in chocolate, White Man's Burden deals in simple contrasts of black and white. The film proposes an alternate reality where Black people comprise a wealthy ruling class and white people are poor and downtrodden. The "racial balance of power," as the press materials call it, has been reversed, so that white people like John Travolta live in bad neighborhoods with cars up on blocks in the yard, and Black people like Harry Belafonte live in mansions with smooth green lawns and marble floors.

John Travolta, with a funny accent and weird red hair, plays a working man trying to get ahead. As a poor white guy he's vulnerable to the whims of Black bosses, and a stray comment by a powerful industrialist (Harry Belafonte) gets him fired. Belafonte, meanwhile, has opulent dinner parties where he makes snide comments about the inferiority of whites even as he is being waited on by one. His wife does charity work for pasty kids she finds adorable but unruly. When their son brings a blond girl home, tension hangs in the air. Get the idea? Eventually Travolta heads into a bad-luck spiral and becomes so frustrated he's forced to take desperate measures and he and Belafonte go, as they say, for a ride.

pix Alternate realities are most compelling when they suggest complex worlds, like the foggy, Japanified Los Angeles in Blade Runner. White Man's Burden, on the other hand, presents a simple social structure where all Black people seem to be rich and all white people are poor. Writer/director Desmond Nakano conflates the complicated notions of race and class into one--intentionally, he says, in order to heighten the drama. Instead he creates a skeleton "reality" so impoverished that any comic-book writer would be ashamed of it. Not only is no one here middle class, there aren't even any Hispanics or Asians or immigrants--nothing complicates the simple black-and-whiteness of it.

The filmmaker no doubt has the best of intentions. The idea is that by "reversing" Blacks and whites we will suddenly be able to see something normally hidden--namely, the arbitrary, fearful nature of racism. But one can't help but wonder whose little mind Nakano intends to blast open. The lessons he's teaching (regardless of our skin color, we all love our families, have hearts, etc.) are not only on the ABC After-School Special level of revelation, they're directed mainly towards closed-minded white people who aren't likely to go to the movie in the first place. More liberal-minded viewers might receive the pale satisfaction of being told something they already agree with, but everyone will suffer from the film's didactic tone, since one thing you can learn from watching an ABC After-School Special is that any entertainment intended to instruct is inherently annoying.

Whatever his intentions, Nakano's vision of race, simple as it is, ends up relying on stereotypes. If you switch skin colors in your head and apply their characteristics in reverse, this movie tells us that Black people are uneducated, sexually licentious, eat nothing but junk food and frequently kill each other, which is no more enlightened than the worst examples of Hollywood action-movie trash. (These are all attributes of Travolta's family.) Someone needs to tell the director if he wants to debunk stereotypes, he'll have to do it without resorting to them himself.

Nakano puts a lot of faith in seeing and recognition, which complicates things even further. The whole idea of the inversion is that it will help people to "see" racism; Travolta gets in trouble when he glimpses something he shouldn't through Belafonte's window. But if seeing is so powerful, then what Nakano is showing us is a whole new way for Hollywood to vilify Black people. Belafonte and his family, as they appear up there on the screen, are vain, rich, snooty and patronizing. Though it's fresh and surprising to see Black people shown in the movies as powerful and affluent, it's too bad they have to be so mean. By contrast, Travolta and his family are proud, self-sacrificing and morally upright. Even though we know we're supposed to switch skin color in our heads, the primary image in front of our faces is of bad, close-minded Black people and good, noble white people.

What a mess. By reducing the issue of race to simple terms, White Man's Burden is doomed to carry complex and conflicting messages about the very problem it wishes to so starkly expose.

White Man's Burden is playing at Century Gateway (792-9000) and Century Park (620-0750) cinemas.

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December 7 - December 13, 1995

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