- BLACKFACE: White Rose.
This week, I thought I’d take a moment from flogging the local press scene to steer you toward some groundbreaking television: “Black. White.,” a six-episode reality show now appearing on the FX Network, Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. Though I avoid most reality shows like the fetid baloney they are, I’m kind of addicted to this one. Produced by documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler (best known for his behind-the-scenes chronicle of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “The War Room”) and rapper Ice Cube, it had me hooked from the first frame.
It took some courage to admit that, especially given “Black. White.” is based on a premise that’s so corny at first glance: Take a black family and a white family (and a battalion of make-up artists), turn them into their racial opposites, and set them loose on the world to see how they experience it differently. Not only that, but make them all live in a house together during the six weeks the experiment is going on.
Given the current level of Hollywood make-up art — which could probably transform Rosie O’Donnell into Abraham Lincoln with enough time, money and rubber prosthetics — the results are startling. Though the white folks make more convincing black folks than vice versa (something about the amount of make-up they have to use to cloak black skin makes the recipients look like porcelain dolls), the effect is good enough that all involved can pass pretty easily.
As always, however, what’s on the outside is never as interesting as what’s on the inside. Matters aren’t helped along any by the fact that the show’s producers not only picked apples and oranges, they picked apples and tomatoes. The white Wurgel family — Bruno, Carmen and daughter Rose — might be the most vapid So-Cal clan you can imagine, completely clueless about matters of race and regionalism, always ready to naively lob a lighting bolt through the conversation via racial comments any fourth-grader could tell weren’t kosher. Meanwhile, the black Sparks family — Brian, Renee and son Nick — are from Atlanta, and not much more enlightened about white folks. A thoroughly Southern clan, proper, mannered, but with more than a few racial chips on their collective shoulders, they’re too polite to call the Wurgels on their racial gaffes, but not beyond staying quietly pissed about them for days. Add to all this the fact that both Bruno and Carmen periodically use (albeit in the name of trying to fit into their assigned roles) the word “nigga” in front of Brian and Renee — which the Sparks respond to by gleefully letting the Wurgels stumble into one racial boner after another (including, most memorably, an episode in which Renee all but talked Carmen into buying herself and her husband garish, flowing African dashikis for their visit to a prim-and-proper black church) — and you’ve got a little Hiroshima, t-minus three, two, one ...
Even beyond the genuinely cringeworthy moments of cultural misunderstanding and outright prejudice from both camps, the most interesting and enlightening part of “Black. White.” might be its exploration of what you could call the Perception Gap. While the children are getting along pretty well, two episodes in, Renee and Carmen are locked in a sort of prolonged stare-down, mostly over Carmen’s calling Renee (get ready to wince) a bitch, mistakenly thinking that it was a term of endearment among black women. Meanwhile, Brian keeps taking Bruno (made up in black) on forays into the city to show him the subtle racism black men experience in the white world. The problem is, Bruno can’t see it — a fact that all but infuriates Brian. Walking down the sidewalk, a group of women move over as the two men approach. Brian sees this as the classic “white woman clutching her purse” scenario. Bruno, however, regards it as courtesy — that the women made room for them on the crowded sidewalk. Later, at a clothing store, a clerk approaches and asks if he can help. What Brian sees as surveillance, Bruno sees as helpfulness — just a salesman looking to make his commission. Though the unblinking camera has tended to side with Bruno so far (though, to be fair, Brian has come upon a few genuine racists at his new — as a white guy — bartending job), what their widely divergent interpretations of everyday events say about each man in particular and about black and white perceptions of the world in general (not to mention how those perceptions can often create their own reality) is fascinating.
In short, while the premise of “Black. White.” seems like some kind of extended joke (one that comedian Eddie Murphy explored way back in the 1980s, in fact, in a series of memorable Saturday Night Live skits), the results here are no laughing matter. To bend an old saying to fit the situation, what the races don’t know about each other could fill a book. Or, in this case, a TV show. It took guts to go there, but it pays off as one of the best shows to be had on television.
The race is on!