Saturday, March 04, 2006

"Black.White." (Part One)

All the scuttlebutt these days--even on Oprah, and that's the standard du jour--is about FX-TV's up-coming show starring two families (one Black, one White) who trade races for a while and try walking in each other's shoes. Reality television being as popular as it is, it was probably only a matter of time before someone like Executive Producer R.J. Cutler (himself European-American) hooked up with someone like actor/rapper/producer Ice Cube willing to join the project to make some money exploring "the color line."

My first thought when I read a promo piece about the show was "Oh, boy, here we go...I wonder how they'll take an emotionally-laden topic of crucial import and turn it into a sound-bite that somehow makes the situation worse." The show hasn't even aired yet and I already have my answer.

For those who've been living in the back of the cave, "Black.White." (the show's title and the first signal that they didn't know what they were really trying to get at) takes a European-American family: Bruno Marcotulli, his wife Carmen Wurgel, and her daughter Rose, and--reality show style--puts them in a house for six weeks with an African-American family made up of Brian and Renee Sparks and their son Nick. But that wasn't enough for Cutler. He's won some awards for his previous reality shows and he has the genre pretty much down pat. So--with the help of Hollywood make-up artists, language experts, et al--he came up with the idea of turning the two families into each other (as it were). What he apparently discovered was that it couldn't be done. Make-up sits on the surface and the issue, if you will, is in the mind where the make-up doesn't reach.

Cutler's idea was interesting, except that any African-American could have told him that the White folks wouldn't get it. Heck! I could have told him that the White folks wouldn't get it. In six weeks? I don't think so. But the sponsors must be falling all over themselves to get a piece of this action. And it's the bottom line, not the color line that unquestionably drove Cutler's train. Skip the fact that viewers are going to walk away from the screen shaking their heads and more convinced than ever that the "other side" is crazy. "I didn't realize how genuinely different an experience it is to be a White American and a Black American," said Cutler at the end of the taping. Du-uh! (And Ice Cube couldn't help him out with that?) But, from what I can tell, lack of insight rarely, if ever, influences a Hollywood mogul to entertain second thoughts when a buck can be made.

A recent installment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, kindly taped and brought to me after a class one day, since I don't have television, brought the two families for a coast-to-coast follow-up session and gave us all a taste of what's to come. I, for one, am glad I won't be seeing it. Not since I visited friends and watched an episode of Bobbie Brown and Whitney Houston demonstrating how crack affects your home life have I been quite so happy to be out of the loop. One scene, for example, showed Wurgel standing up extemporaneously at a poetry group for Black young people and trying her hand at spoken word, using words like "creature" to describe individual members of the stunned audience. I wince just thinking about it. And she was still trying doggedly to explain herself sitting with Oprah after the fact.

Wurgel bought a dashiki to wear to church and managed to call Renee Sparks a bitch in a moment of attempted bonding ("I thought that's what Black women call themselves...") and that was all before the poetry group incident. Her husband Bruno, on the other hand, admitted at one point that he was waiting with relish for some Black person to call him the n-word so that he could reciprocate. With a high five, I guess. You get the idea.

One can only wonder if Ice Cube, who was quoted as saying about the project that "...race is not just the obvious," was just in it for the money, as well. He knew that you can't teach an old dog new tricks in six weeks. He surely also realized how exploitative it would be to put an African-American family into a situation where they can't leave and must come into constant, unavoidable, and recorded contact with well-meaning, but racist people. Still, he signed on.

My problem with it all: my concern that White folks will watch and decide (once more, with feeling) that institutionalized oppression against people of color and most particularly African-Americans is simply a matter of Black folks' skewed perceptions; that it's just the natural function of group relations, in any case; that it belongs primarily, in fact, to occasional bigots sitting on a bar stool; and that it has nothing to do with ordinary European-Americans--like them. And then, of course, I'm also concerned that Black folks will give up believing that there's any hope at all for the future. Because when that happens, we're all in a world of trouble.

No comments: