Skin Diving

As the opening titles for White Man's Burden unscroll, you know right away that you've entered a very different world. White lawn jockeys adorn the tidy estates of affluent black suburbanites. Caucasians slink furtively through the shadows of city streets at night, dealing drugs, selling their bodies, and looking for mugging targets. Television programs and advertisements feature black actors almost exclusively. Most of the dolls sold by toy stores are black. Blacks even dominate the sport of golf.

White Man's Burden quickly establishes itself as a story of race reversal, loaded with satirical exaggerations and recognizable A though racially interchanged A imagery. In these times of resurgent bigotry and class polarization, a thoughtful movie that effectively provokes genuine dialogue on issues of race and economic status can't hurt. Not merely content with skin-deep riffing, writer-director Desmond Nakano gets into his characters' heads and exposes their biases without turning them into easily digestible hero-villain archetypes. As a result, White Man's Burden could become a funny-tragic point of departure for a thousand earnest discussions of race relations; at the very least the movie ought to inspire a little tolerance and compassion.

John Travolta continues on his comeback roll as Louis Pinnock, a hard-working factory employee trying to build a decent life for his family. "I'm gonna get that job as a foreman," he swears to his noble, long-suffering wife (Kelly Lynch). "I promise you, honey! It's gonna be better."

Nothing could be further from the truth. While running a job-related errand on his own time, Pinnock unwittingly commits a faux pas, setting off a chain of events that results in his being fired. On his way home to deliver the bad news, Pinnock's battered pickup truck breaks down and he is harassed and ultimately beaten by a pair of frightened cops.

"What happened?" his tearful wife implores.
"I fit the description," Pinnock hisses through bloodied lips.
And so it goes. Pinnock endures literal and figurative slaps in the face -- drug-dealing neighbors, unemployment, eviction -- until he finally cracks.

Writer-director Nakano is best when his Burden is lightest. The subtly satiric humor (Pinnock's son choosing a black superhero action figure over a white one as a birthday gift) entertains while scoring points, whereas the more heavy-handed melodrama (Pinnock's wealthy, law-abiding, black boss breaking into a white family's house and assaulting its innocent homeowner) just seems obvious. Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what Nakano is trying to say; when cash-strapped and unemployed Pinnock forbids his wife to take a job to help out with the bills, it seems as if the filmmaker tacitly approves of his protagonist's outdated macho attitude. Or is Nakano suggesting that in the real world such chauvinism is characteristic of black males and partially to blame for their lack of economic progress?

Then again maybe such troubling inconsistencies are consistent with the filmmaker's desire to portray Pinnock as a flawed (but basically admirable) character. Nakano wants us to feel what a white man would experience if the balance of race and power were reversed; his hero has been cornered into playing a hand he can't win in a game dealt crookedly to begin with. Travolta succeeds handsomely at evoking audience sympathies for the simple family man, although his curious (and on-again, off-again) stabs at a black accent sound like a put-on. And Harry Belafonte, starring in a major motion picture for the first time in more than twenty years, still exudes scene-stealing charisma. Not only doesn't Belafonte's privileged, passively racist factory owner Thaddeus Thomas realize that it was his offhand remark that got Pinnock fired in the first place, but he also thinks white people are to blame for their own poverty and conveniently overlooks the head start he himself got by being born into the dominant culture's monied elite. Belafonte brings a believable humanity to the role, making Thomas seem like much more than a wealthy black Archie Bunker.

Both Travolta and Belafonte add touches of grace and dignity to their characters, turning them into more than two-dimensional pawns in a game of liberal button-pushing. They breathe life into -- and add dimension to A a movie that could have become a one-note joke.

 
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