Slipping into a second skin

By Eric Deggans
Published March 7, 2006

How did an idea this promising produce a series so uneven?

Hyped like a 21st century version of Black Like Me, FX's new series Black. White. comes across like Eddie Murphy's classic Saturday Night Live skit where the black comic was made up to look like a white man, enjoying a world of free goods and nonstop parties whenever black folks left the room.

It's an intriguing question: What do people from that other race do among themselves after I leave the room? Producers Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler provide a reality TV-based answer, outfitting the white Wurgel/Marcotulli family and the black Sparks family with state of the art makeup as they swap racial identities and share a home for six weeks.

Gangsta rap star turned media mogul Ice Cube has called the show a "social experiment," but Cutler American High, American Candidate knows how to sugarcoat highfalutin ideas in reality TV appeal. So this six-episode series, which ostensibly explores race in America, quickly focuses on the foibles of its stereotypical participants.

Brian and Renee Sparks are middle class black Atlantans sensitive to the point of paranoia, seeing racism in the smallest slights and visibly upset that their withdrawn son, Nick, doesn't share their outrage.

Of course, they can't stand Carmen Wurgel, a too-earnest white liberal from Santa Monica, Calif., who immediately alienates the couple with clumsy language, including a hearty "yo, b----" directed at Renee while learning the rhythm of black folks' patois.

Carmen's husband, Bruno Marcotulli, is certain that this racism talk is mostly excuses and self-pity. Of them all, open-hearted teen Rose Wurgel seems smartest, balancing a willingness to explore with a clear-eyed view of her experiences.

The contrived scenarios in early episodes may only confirm your own perceptions about race: White Brian gets great service in a country club store! Carmen weeps over Renee's righteous anger!

But by the fourth episode, Black. White. succeeds in exposing subtle truths about a slippery subject, upending what you thought you knew about this topic and these families.

And it happens through two curious heroes: Carmen and Rose.

"Truly thinking that you can cross from white to black . . . could actually be the illusion that was made in this show," said Rose during a press conference earlier this year. "It's what you believe about yourself and others that's true."

Part of the problem is that almost everyone shows up here to prove something. Bruno, with his easy confidence, assumes everyone can slip comfortably into middle class white culture. He wants to be called the n-word while passing as black, just so he can shrug it off and show everyone it's no big deal.

Brian is oil to Bruno's water, jumping into white makeup to prove Eddie Murphy's skit was right. But the best examples he can unearth are a retail clerk who helps him try on shoes - apparently, a first for him - and a bar patron who implies the neighborhood is better because it's mostly white.

(Indeed, Renee experiences her most racist incident out of makeup, when a different bar patron tells her black people in that area choose to be ignorant and lazy.)

Most telling are the first moments when the families see each other in full makeup. Bruno and Carmen are taken with a newfound sensuality, snapping fingers and swaying to a nonexistent beat. Brian and Renee are alternately amused and repulsed by the Caucasian faces staring back at them.

Black people have a culture born in suffering and struggle - our "soul food" is stylized seasonings of the scraps our former masters pushed off their table - so it's no wonder so much of our world view is forged in perceiving and avoiding victimization. Can a few weeks in black makeup walking through middle class Tarzana, Calif., bring a white person that kind of knowledge?

In the end, Rose and Carmen learn the most, finding black female friends to help them learn the nuances of black culture (the Sparkses never speak with a similar guide to decipher white culture). Mother and daughter go shopping in makeup with a black friend, only to find that white bystanders pointedly ignore them and white shopkeepers make lame excuses not to provide job applications.

It is Rose who joins an all-black poetry slam class, eventually reveals her true race and endures the group's heated reaction when she mistakes the easy camaraderie of black culture for a connection to cultural history.

And it is Carmen who challenges Bruno's cluelessness after he shows off a comically horrible rap video he made blaming hip-hop culture for most problems in black communities.

"There's a tone . . . that's offensive, that negates the black experience," she says, voice rising. "You irritate it rather than respect it and inquire into it. You make the judgments I don't think you have any right to make."

You go, girl.

But the show's ultimate goal - defining what it means to be "black" or "white" in America outside of skin color and a collection of speech patterns or walking styles - remains mostly up to the viewer.

And Cutler repeats a mistake he has made in past projects, making viewers wade through several episodes of setup before the payoffs start appearing on camera. (At least Cube provided a kicking theme song, with the lyric "I been to jail/Just like Martha Stewart/And we both told the judge that I didn't do it.")

Against my better judgment, I wound up liking this series for its willingness to keep fumbling with a tough subject. Whether many viewers will hang in long as I did is another question.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.