White Man’s Burden

The opening montage is at a candy factory, where white nougat is being surrounded by chocolate. Perhaps you remember the brouhaha- it came out during the tail end of the “reverse racism” era, when my fellow white males thought we were under attack for some reason. We were still reeling from the L.A. riots, but it was an interesting premise- blacks in positions of power, and whites as the disadvantaged underclass.

In a world… where it’s white folks who love grape soda…

This was going to be a NetFlix Q-Pick, but ever since Barack Obama was elected President, White Man’s Burden has been on Very Long Wait. Is whitey scared? It seems the movie has coincidentally slipped out of print. After 9/11 it was impossible to find copies of The Siege, too. The tinfoil hat-wearer in me wants to make something of this, but mediocre movies tend to disappear off shelves anyway. And this isn’t a great movie- it has a great premise, and some very good actors creating characters we like watching, but it dissolves into a bland conventional film.

The first 60 minutes are a spectacular vision of race vs. class; we see blacks inhabiting roles traditionally held by whites in film- such as a powerful businessman holding court before his family at a huge dinner table- and the only whites are the servant in the background, and a blue collar factory worker trying to lead a dignified life in a rough area surrounded by loud, trashy neighbors. Harry Belafonte plays Thaddeus Thomas, captain of industry, who feels entitled to his life of privilege; we meet him at a dinner party, making bemused comments about lazy, self-destructive white people. John Travolta is a Louis Pinnock, a worker at one of his factories, perhaps uneducated but a good worker who goes the extra mile. When the foreman asks him to deliver a package to the boss’s house, he does it even though it’s an hour out of his way.
Sorry son. Gonna have to let you go.

When he gets to the mansion, Louis walks around the side as instructed- and catches a glimpse of Thaddeus’s wife upstairs as she’s dressing. Thad notices, and tells his foreman- and next thing you know Louis is fired, even though he’s a hard worker. “Things just aren’t working out.” At the unemployment office, there’s little help for him- the jobs he’s qualified for don’t want him, and the ones he might get are minimum wage, not enough to support his family. His truck breaks down, and the cops hassle him as he sits beside it. A white crowd comes out to heckle, and he gets beaten for his trouble. When the rent is overdue, his wife and kids are evicted. He’s soon a man at the end of his rope, and when he goes to Thaddeus’s house to plead for his job back, he is sent away.

Driving Mr. Travolta

What do men do in Hollywood when they feel helpless? They find a gun and kidnap somebody. At first, Louis just wants Thaddeus to pay him a debt so he can support his family again. But when he can’t get the money, he decides to hole up with him, and isn’t quite sure what to do with him. But it gets the two characters together, and their interactions are the meat of the film. Lou hides with him in an abandoned building where a friend lives; then he remembers it’s his son’s birthday, so he has to tie Thaddeus in his truck and take him along. So he gets to watch when Lou’s son picks a black superhero figure, and start calling Thad “Blackhawk.” They bond at a grease shack over fries and hot dogs; skinheads, in place of ghetto thug central casting, give them shit. Thaddeus gets to see where his workers, who he disdains as genetically or culturally inferior, have to live.

“Blackhawk has to pee!”

But it’s never a simple tale of walking a mile in another man’s moccasins. This isn’t Putney Swope or Watermelon Man; it’s played completely straight, with no gags, and that’s why it works. It plays in our heads. Whenever something seems off, just imagine Travolta as the black guy and Belafonte as the white one, and you’ll get it. Why is Louis almost afraid to touch him? Thaddeus walks through other people’s houses like he owns them. The swap gives you a briefly colorblind look at class in American society, the true taboo. We’re more likely to marry interracially than across income class. The ending is a bit predictable, and the conventional action story is the movie’s downfall. It was much more interesting watching Travolta and Belafonte’s characters interact, and if they’d worked things out differently, we’d have something.
Travolta does a good job of imitating a lower-class manner that never dips into a black stereotype. Same with Harry Belafonte- he affects a personality similar to John Houseman, echoing the privilege of the upper class, while never seeming anything but natural. The movie isn’t so much a reversal of racial roles as a swap of our expectations, and that’s where it works best. Belafonte does a fine job, but it’s too bad he’s not Sidney Poitier. Now that would have been a reversal- Mr. Tibbs as The Man. The movie will make you think- Travolta’s behavior seems strange, but if you imagine him as Denzel Washington- let’s say in John Q– you’ll see what they’re getting at. While this doesn’t play with your expectations as cruelly as the ingenious Funny Games, it is still interesting viewing.

Skinheads remain the villain in bizarro world. Take them bowling.