Starring Some white folks, and some black folks.
Written By: R. J Cutler, Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Buy on Amazon.com link
As I watched this mini-documentary series, I felt like I had so much that I was ready to say in this review. Was I going to look at the 6 episode FX show from a sarcastic standpoint, mocking all there is to mock in the ignorant and often reductive subjects? Or was I going to approach it from the perspective of documentary film/video theory, of which I probably know more than I need to. Or maybe just a bare bones, it’s good or it’s not good review.
The bottom line is that the show is so chock full of discussion starters. The premise is that a suburban middle class white family (mom, dad, teenage girl) move in with a suburban middle class black family (mom, dad, teenage son), and they try to show one another what it’s like to be the other race. The twist? They do so through undergoing extensive makeup to make them look like the other race. They’re not always in make-up, and often the big reveal’ comes as each episode’s climax. As a pitch, it’s no wonder they got this off the ground. I was intrigued by the concept.
The one thing I need to make clear with, and despite the fact that I’m sure it was the producer’s intention with it, is that this show is not controversial. Unlike John Howard Griffin’s groundbreaking book Black Like Me, this series takes place in 2005, not 1959. Not to say that the same type of racism doesn’t exist, but not even nearly in the same way. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall discusses how there are essentially two types of racism: overt, and far more subtle implied racism. The latter category is what essentially has become the more prominent in today’s society, and can ultimately be the most damaging. The white father in the series, Bruno, wants to have racial slurs said to him while he is in black makeup, but this is something that is unlikely to happen in Southern California, especially if you’re looking for it. I don’t want to imply that it doesn’t happen, but the way the black father, Brian explains it, skin colour matters only in the more subtle ways; even the slight differences in the way one might be treated are truly the most important elements of the racism that the show seems to be seeking.
The show makes some fascinating discoveries as far as the inherent racist nature of both blacks and whites. One of my favourite moments was when Brian in whiteface gets a job at a sports bar in an all-white suburb and discusses the issue of race with customers. He is slightly shocked at what they say, but it is when his wife Renee comes au naturel and starts conversing with the regulars about the fact that she feels out of place as a black woman, do we as the audience really see the type of racism that exists, especially in predominantly white pockets. A man tells her about the mentality of the local blacks, who according to him, see doing well in school as “trying to be white,” and so they fake dumb and do drugs in rebellion. I was impressed at how well Renee kept her cool, but it was really a fantastically eye-opening moment.
Essentially, Brian and Renee’s discoveries just confirm what they believe to be true about white people. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Bruno and his wife Carmen. I don’t think it has anything to do with a lack of understanding about race, they’re the prime example of a middle-class couple who have no view of the world other than their own. Bruno’s opinion of racism is that it no longer really exists, and that black people just need to change their attitudes to assimilate better. Yes, that is how he really feels; as hard as Brian tries to make Bruno see the subtleties that affect him every day, Bruno just finds other excuses. He reminded me of Steve Carell’s character on The Office, whose perspectives of other races and cultures come exclusively from Hollywood and the mainstream media. Even when Bruno and his wife explore the black culture through comedy, barbershops, and the game of dominoes, they don’t make a true attempt to understand it; it’s not so much about culture as it is a middle-class mentality of looking at everyone else with a lower social status. Plus, Carmen cries all the time which is just plain annoying.
If anything, the one person with the biggest epiphany is Carmen’s daughter Rose. She joins a slam poetry class and halfway through the series she reveals to them that she is white. She tries to fit in, and I think on both sides, there is a genuine attempt to overlook skin colour. She begins to understand differences in culture, but instead of truly trying to be’ black or to ever say she knows what it’s like’, she embraces the fact that while there is difference, everyone is human, and has feelings, and can have friendships with anyone and everyone. It’s a little reminiscent of a grade 4 definition of anti-racism, but I think it works given the fact that the rest of the subjects do not really learn quite so much. Brian and Renee are far too stubborn, Bruno’s a douchebag, Carmen is too emotional, and Nick, Brian and Renee’s son, is far too immersed in an aspect of blackness he sees as ideal but in reality is a downward spiral. Nick doesn’t feel that there is racism, and at the same time adheres to the ideals of urban pop culture. Kicked out of school, he sees no consequence in his lack of motivation, and complete lack of understanding of his own culture. His parents finally see halfway through the series that rather than teaching the white family about racism, they really need to teach their own son.
My biggest issue with the series is that it felt incomplete. With the whole idea that each of the subjects could be two different people, they really should have used it for better indication of the differences between black and white. For example, Brian as a white man gets a job as a bartender. What would have been most effective as a documentary tactic would be to follow that up with Brian as a black man applying for the same job. The implications of the mirroring would have had a far better effect on viewers rather than hearsay, especially those who really do not understand the experience of racism and judging by the type of shows on FX, a predominantly white middle-class audience.
The show also suffers from something that seems to be indicative of American documentary in general: the insistence upon the crisis structure. Each episode seemed to have a big climax towards the end, and most conversations between the two families would result in arguments. Obviously condensing six weeks of footage into six one hour episodes necessitates a tendency towards conflict, but the bottom line is, the show is supposed to be about the existence (or lack thereof) of racism in the United States. Maybe it’s my Canadian perspective on this, but I felt that for the most part, everyone on the show, including the rich white kids in Nick’s etiquette class, Rose’s poetry class, and any friends made along the way, came off as somewhat ignorant. There were exceptions, however: Bruno goes to speak to a well-educated musician and teacher and tries to convince him a black man that racism is an illusion; Renee makes a friend while white who seems to be a far better example of a general openness and kindness that Carmen did not possess.
The problem stemming from the entire concept is the presence of the cameras; there is a big difference between life as it is’ the way life appears everyday and life caught unawares’ – the way of acting in presence of a camera without consciously acknowledging it. The families both highlight certain aspects of themselves in presence of cameras, and their talking head scenes often differ from their actions. However, the worst are the teens in Nick’s etiquette class whose presence seems to be entirely predicated on an appearance on television. Perhaps Southern California might not have been the most ideal place to do the experiment; I honestly do not know if situations are any better or worse in other major American cities, but the bottom line is, this is still television, and if you can make a quick buck or show your friends you face on TV, why not make yourself look as good as possible.
I still don’t know what to make of the show. I have many ideas on how it might be better, but at the same time, I would not have wanted it to go longer. It also raises questions about other races, and in California, most notably the Latin American populations. Historically, the black-white dichotomy has been the biggest and most controversial, but the bottom line is, too many Americans don’t even understand themselves. Maybe it’s time for a little refresher on world history, and a few lessons on why the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world. I doubt any of the subjects of this documentary series would know where Canada is, all tucked way down there.
-commentary on all 6 episodes
-Ice Cube music video
-makeup application slideshow
-Rose’s Poetry Slam featurette
-(online) Study guides
Favorite Scenes: Episodes 2, 4, 5
Running Time: 315 minutes