White Man's Burden has a lofty goal: to put the races in the other guy's shoes.
But being released as it is in the wake of O.J. Simpson's acquittal, White Man's Burden comes off as a Hollywood knee-jerk take on race--something like those "in-depth," 300-page "real-story" books released 17 days after the trial. It's what results when some hack writer pisses dinner-table conversations onto the blank page, and the publisher slaps on a tits-and-ass cover and dumps it on the market.
In this case, those conversations derive from a faulty game of elitist "what-if." First-time director Desmond Nakano upends our O.J.-angered world by making everything that's "white," black, and everything that's "black," white.
The film stars the aged, bloated, and cinematically deceased Harry Belafonte as the bigoted, factory-owning Thaddeus Thomas. He is plotted against by one of his serfs--the red-headed, pimp daddy-styled Louis Pinnock, played by the latest version of John Travolta.
Tagging along for this 80-minute, walk-a-mile-in-my-moccasins caper are Kelly Lynch as Travolta's too-tired-of-being-pregnant-and-poor wife, and Margaret Avery as the unwitting object of Travolta's peeping-eye troubles.
Pinnock's desire to better his labored life leads him into the wondrous world of the black upper class. He tries to curry favor with the big boss by delivering a package to his home, but takes a wrong turn and lands in Thaddeus Thomas' courtyard--in full view of the bedroom windows. Before he can make his way to the back door, Pinnock sees and is seen by the man who controls his fate. In the aftermath, he's fired from his factory job and thrust into a series of events that sacrifice logic for the loftier goal of furthering the director's point.
It's here that the audience must decide whether to go for a ride of truly suspended belief or break away and challenge Nakano's "what-if" premise. In our divided America, both races will fall into familiar camps.
Whites will most likely snuggle up to the contrived jive of Travolta's "black" cadence and "Starsky & Hutch" street smarts. Travolta's character seems to believe that being on the down side of the penny entitles him to quip poetic-jive lines like, "Heeeeyyy U mmyyyy maaannn" to his son, and something like, "Hey, git yo foot offa my neck!" to the black policemen who question him as a he sits on a darkened curb outside a juke joint.
Blacks, however, will immediately notice something missing from this portrayal of themselves as black-skinned elitists with as little regard for humankind as the white race's current poster child, Newt Gingrich.
In the movies, there exists a great divide when the script turns to race. Film sees blacks as either poor, gangsta ne'er-do-wells or, as author and film historian Donald Bogle characterized black screen images, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks." Whites fare just as stereotypically in roles as cops and liberals. As far back as D.W. Griffiths' 1915 Birth of a Nation and the current era's Soul Man, the movies have set whites in blackface and gasped at the realistic "black" perspective. And, in turn, big-time black actor Eddie Murphy and a lesser-known British star, Lenny Henry (1991's True Identity), have trotted out sadly funny whiteface characterizations. None of these efforts has ever rightfully portrayed the opposite race.
To this misbegotten cinematic genre you can add White Man's Burden. While exiting a screening, I overheard a white couple musing whether a friend--presumably a black friend--would be like "that," meaning Belafonte in his cinematic state of wealth and "empowerment." And during the film, a black female row-mate quipped--in a stereotypical "black-folks" middle-of-the-movie cackle--"Now I bet they'll get it!"
White Man's Burden's greatest flaw, however, is that it lacks a set-up for the conditions of the races; we never find out how the great power switch came about.
Those who remember the 1970 film Watermelon Man, or John Howard Griffin's real-life story Black Like Me, will recall that those characters were, in effect, changed overnight, and experienced the "other side" as if in a nightmare. The message of those films was quite clear: If the tables were turned, could you accept the conditions in which these "other" people live?
Yet in White Man's Burden, we're treated to a collection of stereotypes for which the colors have merely been changed. The director assumes that European classism is the only way for a multicultural society to exist--that Americans with power, whatever their color, will wield it with absolute abandon. As a viewer, you must wrestle with the validity of this assumption.
And this is the dilemma of White Man's Burden. You're forced to see the film's lack of a set-up as either a director's flaw, or a personal challenge to your racial IQ. Some will see Travolta's George Jefferson-Fred Sanford gyrations and associate being poor with buffoonery. Others will see Belafonte's classism and agree that even a cast of black "haves" would quickly distance themselves from the troubles of the world. Your reaction to these characters will say a lot more about you, however, than about the state of the races in America.
Some may even argue the merits of a switched society in which African-Americans simply assimilate the actions and mentality of whites. Although the freeing of slaves didn't lead immediately to black folks shackling vulnerable whites, somehow the idea of retribution lingers on in society.
Yet without context--without an understanding of why all the black people in the film are acting like white people--this tale of switched skins won't stand. White Man's Burden has little else to offer besides its basic gimmick: no guts, religion, spirit, empathy, passion, or worth beyond the "what-if" dinner musings of powerful people with nothing better to do. And if you can't bring yourself to believe that blacks in power will act like whites in power, then the movie is an aimless journey.
The only provocative point about White Man's Burden is remembering how the other guy's skin color and lot in life meant you could call him "nigger," "spic," "honky," "chink," "pollack," "kike," "WASP," "Jap"...and then, one day, you did. If you buy into the movie's message of "power corrupts, regardless of race," then you admit and honor your racism and classism. You've bought into the American ideal of Manifest Destiny with a damn-the-races, "survival-of-the-fittest" twist.
And maybe that's where the director, who's Japanese-American, is coming from, after all. With all the anti-Japanese sentiment surrounding American business and the backlash against Asian businesses in the African-American community, Nakano's approach to the black race's upheaval seems suspect--or maybe just an assimilated Japanese-American's burden.
White Man's Burden. Savoy Pictures. John Travolta, Harry Belafonte. Written and directed by Desmond Nakano. Now showing.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.