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Black Like You

Mark H. Harris
The Wurgels and the Sparks, before and after.

When is trading 'races' not as entertaining -- or insightful -- as trading spaces? When it's all part of FX's highly implausible 'social experiment', an idea fated to fail from the first smudge of groan-inducing greasepaint.

While Ice Cube's contribution to cinematic discourse is dubious at best ("Do you feel that the neo-realism of the denouement undermined the narrative aesthetic of Torque?"), his recently concluded foray into television production, Black. White., no doubt triggered water cooler discussions that led to fisticuffs and hurriedly dug shallow graves.

In reality TV's never-ending quest to find a new way to force antagonists to share communal space ("Shiite. Sunni." "Cobra. Mongoose." "Robin Quivers. Dignity."), Black. White. placed two racially ignorant families � one white, one black � under the same roof and through the magic of Hollywood cosmetology, made them up to look like the other race. Wackiness ensued. Prejudice has never been so much fun!

Actually, the show played it all very straight � perhaps too much so. After a debut episode that set cable TV ratings records, viewership flew faster than a Naomi Campbell cellphone. With a concept that was at once high-minded and base, so ripe for both comedy and tragedy, with so lofty a destination yet so crude a vehicle, the opportunity for outrageous entertainment � and sobering lessons � had lain at our feet. This show could've been � dare I say it? � the next White Shadow. Instead, with a six-episode run that finished with an anticlimactic whimper, it became the next Sonny Spoon.

So, what happened? Aside from the obvious distasteful smugness of the white family's patriarch (live-in boyfriend Bruno), several aspects of the show may have proved too much for viewers to bear:

Powder, Please
The makeup, though well done for TV standards, made the black family (the Sparks) look at best sickly and at worst like denizens of some twisted Michael Jackson dream world. While the white family (the Wurgels) fared a bit better, the producers decided to outfit the naturally bald Bruno with "black hair", which, combined with the faux tan, made him look like Gus from Birth of a Nation. Only white teenager Rose looked natural, and in her case, she looked too good. Like, ten times better than she looked white.

In Search of the Talented Tenth
Holy crap, where did they get these black people? It's like the producers hand picked them as the perfect combination of impatience, inarticulacy, and ignorance to thwart any hope of a productive discussion on race. What kind of black parents raise a son who's impervious to the sting of the n-word? Sure, in theory that sounds nice, but it's sort of like someone who's not afraid of oncoming traffic.

Black mother Renee was a ball of nerves, and no matter what white mother Carmen did, she found herself on her last one. Yes, Carmen was a dunderhead, but she was a well-intentioned dunderhead. On the other hand, know-it-all Bruno � who believed that one's success in life depends solely on how hard you work and not on your race (thus, he's a substitute teacher) � deserved the scorn that black dad Brian dished out. Unfortunately, Brian lacked the reasoning and articulation to convey to Bruno exactly why he's such a dick.

'F' for Effort
It felt like the producers spent about 95% of their time trying to match skin-tone paints at Home Depot and about 5% planning what they wanted their human guinea pigs to do once they moved into the house. Even a Road Rules-styled zip line across a chasm would've shown some thought, and frankly it would've been only slightly less relevant than having Bruno go to an auto dealership or seeing if anyone would stop to help two black men jump-start a car. Since this isn't 1958 Birmingham, Alabama, of course, nothing overtly racist occurred during these "experiments" � unless you count Bruno hoping that something overtly racist would occur.

With such an obvious villain as Bruno, you'd think that the producers would go overboard trying to soften his views, but the show's half-assed outings often seemed designed to imbed his pompous self-righteousness even deeper. When Brian takes him out of the house to experience black culture, for instance, they somehow (cue producer magic) find a boozy dominoes game that's a Jheri curl away from Boyz N the Hood. Bruno already feels superior; why fuel the fire? Frankly, he should've been forced to defend his belief that racism doesn't exist � or at least, is a non-issue � to the black poetry class that Rose attended. That way, he would've felt the frustration of arguing his point as an outnumbered minority, but it would've been difficult for him to dismiss the group as ignorant, uneducated, poorly spoken buffoons (though I'm sure he could've found a way).

Under a Black Rock
Who are we kidding? Does a black person really have to disguise himself as white in order to understand white culture? American culture is, by and large, white culture; we live it every day. So when the show documented Renee's ignorance of what white people do for fun, it felt forced, as if the producers were nudging her along: "You know what might be fun? Scrapbooking!" Then again, her son enjoys the n-word, so masochism might run in the family.

Product Placement
Thanks to pervasive corporate synergy, I now have the urge to run out and buy Ice Cube's new album, Laugh Now, Cry Later (In stores June 6!).

The Real World
Basically, the show was too real to sustain a reality TV-weaned audience. Racism is a subtle, drawn-out process unfit for sensationalistic voyeurism. You can go weeks, months, or even years without the type of direct racial attack that Bruno was so disturbingly eager to encounter, and then, when you least expect it, WHAM, someone offers you a watermelon side dish for your three-piece meal.

There's inherent difficulty in trying to capture something as complex and nuanced as racism on camera within a limited time frame. The Sparks were apparently appointed the thankless task of shaking the racism tree, praying that something would fall, but the constraints of television make it all feel like knee-jerk desperation: "Taxi, follow that racism!"

The least that Black. White. could've done was use more hidden cameras; they needed to get all Primetime Live up in there. The most intriguing and palpable racial animosity was captured using hidden cameras (e.g., Rose asking for a job application from stores that conveniently were "out"), because who's gonna oppress you with a cameraman, a sound guy, and an AD with a release form standing two feet away?

So, after an episode and a half with little of shock value than Bruno contemplating wearing an African robe to church (ignorant to the fact that the only black people who wear robes to church are Africans and repentant DC mayors in the wake of a crack bust), you could practically hear TVs being turned to the interracial spit take that was Flavor of Love.

By the sixth episode, the show had run its course, as it became painfully obvious that neither side would ever relate to the other � although, to be fair, there were some lessons learned: Nick initially thought that it was OK if his white friends used the n-word; then he learned how much they loved to say the n-word. Carmen learned that "talking black" doesn't involve speaking with a Southern accent or using the word "bitch". Renee and Brian learned that an all-expenses-paid trip to LA doesn't come free. Bruno learned that he was right about there being no difference between the races; everyone hates him equally.

Meanwhile, Rose, the real star of the show, was the only one who learned anything truly meaningful and lasting: she loves black men.

Since the show ended, it's been revealed that both Rose and Bruno are actors and that Carmen is a casting scout who used her relationship with the casting director to get her family on the show. The Sparks, meanwhile, knew the cab driver who dropped them off at the audition, alongside hundreds of other black families. Ironically, this speaks louder about the racial divide than anything Black. White. ever showed on screen.

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