|Black. White. (2006)
Starring: Bree Elise, Nicholas Sparks, Brian Sparks, Rose Bloomfield, Carmen Wurgel, Bruno Marcotulli
It’s exceedingly difficult to even discuss race in this country without offending someone, let alone try to spark a discussion on television – witness the current kerfuffle surrounding the latest season of CBS’ “Survivor” – so kudos, right off the bat, are due the FX network and everyone involved with “Black. White.” (In producer Ice Cube’s case, the primary motivation may have been to prove that the heart of a social activist still beats within the chest cavity of the man who brought us “Are We There Yet?”, but still.)
The premise behind the show, if you’re unfamiliar, was this: Take a black family (the Sparks), take a white family (the Wurgels), put them together in a house, and – through the use of some fairly amazing makeup work – temporarily switch their races. As with another FX series, Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days,” the idea is that if you walk a mile in another man’s shoes (or skin), you’ll be a more understanding person.
As a sociological experiment, it’s brilliant; as the setup for a reality television show, you could certainly do worse. The problem, of course, is that sociology is frequently interesting only to sociologists – in order to make compelling viewing out of this stuff, you’ve got to have the right personalities.
Here’s where “Black. White.” stumbles. The show’s white parents, Bruno and Carmen Wurgel, initially come across as living nightmarish stereotypes of an annoying, self-consciously “enlightened” middle-class couple, but it doesn’t take long for Bruno to reveal himself as being stubbornly entrenched in a fantasy where racism no longer exists. It’s difficult to decide which is worse, the first impression or the second; either way, Bruno’s persistent denial is the fulcrum about which the show revolves. This isn’t to say nothing else happens, just that a lot of it isn’t terribly interesting – which probably has a lot to do with why this show wasn’t exactly a runaway ratings success.
There are a handful of sweet, telling moments – early on, the Wurgels’ blindingly pretty daughter, Rose, attends a slam poetry class as an ostensibly black girl and tells the group that her favorite band is the Cranberries; dad Brian Sparks goes shopping as a white man for the first time – but the bulk of the show’s six-episode run teeters between aggravating and dull. There’s no arc here for Bruno – he exits with his blinders pasted on just as firmly as when he entered – which more or less sums up “Black. White.” in its entirety.
The extras on this two-disc set are enjoyable, if fairly basic: audio commentaries, casting footage, a slide show and some study guides (plus, of course, an Ice Cube music video).There’s a germ of some great, truly worthwhile television here; with some tinkering, it isn’t difficult to believe that subsequent seasons could be successful – even important. Here’s to hoping FX gives this experiment another shot.