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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Black. White.' is more than a reality gimmick

Brian and Renee Sparks and their son Nick (top left) let Hollywood makeup artists transform them into a 'white' family (top right) for six weeks on the FX series 'Black. White.' Meanwhile, Bruno Marcotulli, Carmen Wurgel, and her daughter Rose Bloomfield (bottom right) became 'black' (bottom left). The two families shared a house in California for the duration of the show.
Brian and Renee Sparks and their son Nick (top left) let Hollywood makeup artists transform them into a "white" family (top right) for six weeks on the FX series "Black. White." Meanwhile, Bruno Marcotulli, Carmen Wurgel, and her daughter Rose Bloomfield (bottom right) became "black" (bottom left). The two families shared a house in California for the duration of the show. (FX Networks via Associated Press)

Despite the Oscar win of the racially charged ''Crash," talk about race in mainstream entertainment is muted. So many popular TV shows portray an America where racial differences don't much matter, where an Asian woman and a black man can fall in love on ''Grey's Anatomy" without a hint of external or internal dissonance. It's easy to forget that, unless you're watching ''The Shield," fictional TV is shot through with fantasy, to provide escape. Material that openly prods us to doubt our points of view doesn't tend to top the Nielsens.

Which is a reason to take ''Black. White." seriously, despite its limitations as a reality show with obviously manufactured situations. The six-part FX series, which premieres tonight at 10, will at least get you thinking about racism and how it manifests in your own life, no matter how unbigoted you think you are. Clearly, the action in ''Black. White." has been manipulated and edited to justify its existence as a spark-filled TV look at black-white relations. Indeed, the show, in which a black family and a white family wear makeup to swap races, can be downright hokey. But it nonetheless pushes you into questions about your own behavior and feelings.

The positive approach of, say, the ''Will & Grace" love affair between Will and his black boyfriend (Taye Diggs) is charming, and does reflect truth; but still, it's a plus to find a show so willing to root out troublesome and hidden discord. Like John Howard Griffin, author of 1961's ''Black Like Me," ''Black. White." producers R.J. Cutler and Ice Cube want to deliver experiential evidence of bigotry. While some things have changed in the 40-plus years since Griffin went undercover as a black in the South, some things -- discomfort, suspicion, awkwardness, guilt, unspoken hostility -- have not.

Wisely, ''Black. White." chose a family of liberal whites to turn black. Carmen, Bruno, and teen daughter Rose think of themselves as unprejudiced and politically correct. When Carmen and Bruno first meet wearing black makeup, they find each other so beautiful that Bruno is moved to tears. A coarse reality show such as ''Wife Swap" would probably have chosen openly racist families, to create obvious conflict. But ''Black. White." has more subtle points to make. No matter how comfortable they think they are, the white family still makes offensive comments. At times they seem tragically clueless. Bruno reveals that he doesn't think racism exists, except as a self-fulfilling prophesy by black people.

The black family -- Brian, Renee, and teen son Nick -- similarly resist understanding the white experience. The show has the two families living in the same LA home during filming, and at one point Carmen is trying to be familiar with Renee. ''Yo bitch," Carmen says, using what she thinks is a black term of endearment. Of course she's way off base, and she deeply regrets it, but Renee refuses to cut her a break.

The makers of the show send the cast into situations clearly contrived to evoke racism. Tonight, in disguise, each family goes to a focus group on race. At the all-white group, Brian overhears a guy talking about feeling he should wipe his hands after touching a black person. And at the all-black group, Bruno raises eyebrows among the members with his awkward use of the N-word. Meanwhile, young Rose attends an all-black slam-poetry class in disguise, where she feels inadequate as she reads one of her wordy, rhythmically inert pieces.

One of the best moments comes when Brian talks about buying shoes as a white man. For the first time in his life, the salesperson helped him fit the shoe onto his foot, rather than just handing him the shoe to put on himself. It's the kind of small, but critical, observation that distinguishes ''Black. White." from more pat undercover shows. A similar example finds Brian and Bruno, both as black men, entering a clothing store, where Brian thinks the salesman is attentive because he's suspicious while Bruno thinks the salesman is just trying to help.

That kind of ambiguity doesn't exist on a more crass undercover show such as the new ''Spying on Myself." The A&E reality series, also tonight at 10, proves just how simplistic and sensationalized this genre can be, as people wear disguises to find out what friends and loved ones think of them. While ''Black. White." uses makeup to explore and possibly heal, ''Spying on Myself" wants to start trouble and make fools of people, such as when a woman goes undercover to find out why a friend doesn't like her fiancé. The show is more like a nasty high school trick than an attempt to simulate a useful human experiment.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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