Compared to its obvious inspiration, "Black Like Me," it's easy to knock "Black. White.," the new reality-show experiment in race relations on the Fox network's FX channel — and many people do.
"Nonsense masquerading as substance," scoffs USA Today critic Robert Blanco. Maybe it is. Or maybe it's a rare injection of substance into TV's usual nonsense.
Maybe, wrapped in its unreal "reality show" grab for drama, suspense and easy laughs, it might actually help us Americans learn something about how we get along or don't get along in our ethnic stir-fry.
In a twist on Fox's "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy," FX offers what might be called "Trading Races: Meet Your New Angst." Through the magic of modern Hollywood makeup, "Black. White." allows the black Sparks family of Atlanta, Ga., and the white Wurgel/ Marcotulli family of Santa Monica, Calif., to trade races in suburban Los Angeles.
Racial and ethnic passing are old themes in America, a land of ambitious border-crossers. Gregory Peck played a journalist who passed for Jewish in the 1947 film "Gentleman's Agreement," to expose everyday anti-Semitism. The real-life writer John Howard Griffin turned himself black with a doctor's help to tour the segregated South in 1959 for "Black Like Me."
Griffin's racial tourism offered few laughs. It was a relentlessly humiliating and ultimately death-defying experiment. Afterwards, he endured death threats for having challenged the South's racial apartheid.
Years later, Griffin's racial tourism compares to the 1986 movie "Soul Man" in much the same way that lightning is like a lightning bug. A spoof of the "Black Like Me" theme, "Soul Man" offers a white youth who passes for black to get an affirmative-action scholarship to Harvard. Although he eventually learns in typical Hollywood fashion that it's harder out here for a black dude than he thought, "Soul Man" squanders a great opportunity to get substantive for the sake of cheap laughs.
It might be easy for some to say the same about "Black. White." The participants obviously have a tougher time in this, the era of Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, etc., to find exciting video of racial conflict. The pilot episode, the only one I have seen, reaches for stereotypes while supposedly trying to break through them. Black father Brian Sparks, for example, is steered as a "white" man to observe life in a "redneck bar" (note the lingering shot of a bald, burly and tatooed biker guy) and a golf course. White teen Rose Wurgel is steered as a "black" girl to a black poetry slam group. The show's idea of "authentic" white and black experiences obviously leans toward the bold and visual.
And one cannot help but wonder how desperately some of the participants are looking for evidence to fulfill their personal agendas. Black father Brian Sparks, for example, seems hypersensitive to racial slights at times. Even when some white people move aside to let him and artificially black Bruno Marcotulli walk by on the sidewalk, the whites are suspect in Brian's eyes. Bruno sees common courtesy in their moving aside. Brian suspects bias because he doesn't like "the way they did it."
Bruno bubbles with an irritatingly cheerful sense of liberal white-guy entitlement. A teacher, he seems overly eager to treat black people like his students, preaching the virtues of hard work, proper attitude and high tolerance for racial slurs.
In fact, Bruno, in and out of his blackface, seems to relish throwing slurs like "honky" and "nigger" around, even when they make others visibly wince.
How many episodes, one wonders, before we see a Brian vs. Bruno smackdown? Hey, suspense is good for ratings, right?
If anything rises up as rays of hope in the pilot episode, it is the families' teens. Rose bubbles with adventurous excitement at the prospect of becoming black for a while. Nick unintentionally outrages his mother by failing to object while he is "white" when a white kid uses the N-word in a conversation.
The teens, typical of a generation that can't even remember when Michael Jackson didn't have a nose job, are a lot more relaxed than their elders about the old racial rules.
In the age of white rappers like Eminem or black golfers like Tiger Woods, it's not as big of a deal as it used to be for today's teens to cross racial boundaries. Some of them are doing it every day.