Turnabout of Foul Play : In 'White Man's Burden,' John Travolta and Harry Belafonte tilt racism on its head, in a universe where black culture dominates. Get ready to rock your world.

Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

John Travolta is holding a gun on Harry Belafonte. Which is something the beat-up cars and under populated buses occasionally passing this deserted stretch of downtown's Hope Street don't see every night.

These two generational icons are jammed into a street-side phone booth, shooting a late-night scene in which an unraveling Travolta phones his family, trying to persuade his kids to stop fighting, telling his wife just how horny he has been out on the lam. All the while he keeps a pistol lodged in his hostage's--Belafonte's--gut.

Silent through this monologue, Belafonte appears none too sympathetic to his captor's long-distance domesticities. Still clad in the sharp suit he was kidnaped in, he looks annoyedly away from Travolta, as if bodyguards should arrive at any second to remove this gun-toting gnat from his side. His jaw muscles visibly clench in impatience. Belafonte looks so stiff, so proper, so uptight, so . . .

. . . White?

That may not seem to necessarily follow. And yet here is Belafonte, the legendary African American civil-rights ambassador, playing the Caucasian lead--sort of--in "White Man's Burden," an independent film in production about a race-related conflict between two very proud men.

Which must mean, of course, that Travolta--tackling his first role since becoming a star again with "Pulp Fiction"--has been assigned here to the, er, black lead.

No, this isn't a Newt Gingrich nightmare of affirmative action gone wrong. (There's a major conceit at play, but it's not the laugh-getting casting leap of "Suture.") But you would be correct in sensing some collision of Rod Serling and Ralph Ellison at work.

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"White Man's Burden" takes place in an alternate universe nearly identical to ours but for the fact that in this doppelganger America the black culture is the dominant one, socially and economically, and whites are primarily a patronized underclass. Just your basic suspension of disbelief.

Travolta plays a menial worker struggling to keep his family fed and clothed even before he he's unfairly laid off, as the result of an order sent down from Belafonte's arrogant CEO. Almost faster than you can say Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge , Travolta has snapped, abducting Belafonte in a hasty scheme to set things right that quickly goes awry.

The nearest parallel in terms of such a major twist might be "Fatherland," the novel and TV movie whose post-World War II story took place against the precept that Germany won the war. But Travolta, for one, is thinking in terms of more basic antecedents.

"I think it's an American tragedy--I do," he says, his pistol tucked away for safekeeping, sitting back in his trailer later. "It's more like those '50s tragedies, like Tennessee Williams or Inge or Frank D. Gilroy would write, or like 'Death of a Salesman.' It's very modern, but it just has that kind of feeling about the characters that we haven't seen in a while.

"And you've got that gift of opposition--Harry and I are playing two things we're not, by nature. He plays a bigot. And the aggression is interesting for me to play, because I've never played a guy that was capable of this level of anger. There's a lot of violence in him, but only if he's forced to be violent. It's not his nature, but it is his urge to survive in a very oppressed situation."

What exactly is behind Travolta's rage?

It's a black thing.

Writer-director Desmond Nakano watched a lot of old "race" movies, like "The Defiant Ones," and found himself wondering if there were some more effective ways to get to the heart of the matter in the '90s than merely setting up a series of injustices.

"Everybody knows racism's bad," says Nakano (making a directorial bow after script credits including "Last Exit to Brooklyn"). "If a white audience watches a movie about discrimination against black characters, they know who they're supposed to root for, and they can sympathize.

"That's not the same as empathize . There's a big difference. In those movies, they can say, 'Gee, that's too bad for them.' Whereas in this movie, the us and them is obliterated, so you can't say that, and it really short-circuits your thinking."

Inevitably, then, the film will include a scene in which Travolta gets beaten up by a group of black cops, an un-pigmented Rodney King. The unease may be a little subtler when Travolta is toy shopping for his kids and is faced with row upon row of tiny black faces in the store windows, with a token white doll or two thrown in for good measure.

With the filmmakers playing the skin-color twist for such extreme irony, it will require no little dramatic intensity to get viewers past the distracting gates of the Twilight Zone and into the story proper.

"I kind of think it works even without the race issue," insists Travolta, who has dyed his hair blond to play black, as it were. Sans twist, he says, "it might not be as intriguing, but it certainly would work. It would be more about classism, then."

Nakano recalls how, to assuage his doubts, he indulged in an exercise after completing the script: "I switched the words black and white on my computer and printed it out and reread it to make sure it was dramatically valid. And it plays differently, but it should still work. I mean, first it is a movie about these two characters being forced to relate to each other; secondly, there is the added premise of the reverse world."

Though it may sound a bit like agitprop by definition, producer Lawrence Bender ("Pulp Fiction," "Fresh") is counting on star power and dramatic sparks to make "White Man" not too burdensome for mainstream moviegoers, who would probably just as soon get their messages via Western Union.

"There's nothing really preachy in here," Bender says. "There's one or two places maybe where we're talking about something that may be relatively direct, but even in those cases, it's reversed, so it throws you off balance, in a good way. It shouldn't be promoted as a movie about race. It could be about men and women, it could be about gay and straight--it's really about what it's like to have the shoe on the other foot."

Big unresolved question: The political weather being what it is, with affirmative action suddenly on the ropes, for starters, will the mass audiences of 1995 be that interested in podiatric share-wear?

To really make viewers feel as if they've walked a mile in an other man's Nikes, it was important to cast leads who would engender major cross-racial identification.

Shortly after the Cannes Film Festival last year, the newly hot Travolta was at a photo shoot with Quentin Tarantino, when the filmmaker whispered, "I need to talk to you." Upon later conferral, it turned out the grave matter Tarantino had on his mind was recommending a script called "White Man's Burden" that Bender had passed on to him.

The producer had been nervous about even asking Travolta to take on another low-paying picture; Tarantino's response had been, "So why should John suffer because of your budget? Let him make the choice, not you."

Says Travolta: "Frankly, I wanted to go back to work, because it had been a year, and I was a little bored. Quentin didn't want me to do anything after 'Pulp.' He said 'Just wait. This is gonna be really good for you, so don't take anything just to keep going'--so I didn't. But he recommended both these movies I'm doing now, 'Get Shorty' and 'White Man's Burden.' It was kind of his managerial influence on me."

Travolta has a new, short, blond 'do that might make him look too much like Billy Idol, if his well-rounded cheeks didn't give him a more cherubic countenance, all of which puts a softer edge on his hard behavior. It's a, well, amazing look.

"Amazingly bad haircut, yeah," he says. "Well, I've always been a chameleon, but I haven't always had the opportunity to have the character stretches that I've had with these two movies. I think I did in 'Saturday Night Fever,' 'Blow Out' and 'Urban Cowboy.' But I haven't played a lot of guys with character defects .

"I've always thought of myself as a character actor, never really as a leading man. But you do take what comes your way, when it comes your way. I feel that I would have done these 20 years ago, had they been presented to me. But you play what is offered for your age range. I think the more interesting characters are from 40 to 70, anyway, for men."

But never mind Travolta's year off: Belafonte hadn't done a major feature part that wasn't a walk-on for nearly two decades (his last lead of import being "Uptown Saturday Night" in 1974).

"Outside of one or two films that I would've liked to have done, like 'Driving Miss Daisy,' most of the things that I'd been offered I just really had no interest in," Belafonte says. "I had kind of distanced myself from the Hollywood world. It holds nothing for me, really. And when this script came along, at first I didn't accept it."

He believed the original script wasn't quite as hep to the African American experience as it aspired. But in meetings, Nakano proved open to suggestions for fine-tuning, and the singer-actor-activist came to believe "White Man" could be an eye-opener as well as a meaty personal comeback.

Belafonte believes Travolta's nervous breakdown in the film will strike a nerve with white America and force them to reconsider how they view the embittered testiness sometimes found in black America.

"Even if it's unjust, you're supposed to be civil and docile and non-responsive. That's always been the characteristic of racism and how people view the condition of people of color: 'Pray, and don't worry about being oppressed. There'll be a place for you in heaven'--that's what they told the slaves. And now it's 'You people are asking for too much.' And along comes this picture, and it chooses to courageously dabble in all that.

"Certainly, if you look at the political climate today, with extremists prepared to abridge human rights in order to feel safe--like the three- strikes- and- you're- out law and the stop-and-search or open-warrant law--all those things mean people are extremely anxious about their environment and prepared to vote for things they think will make a difference," says Belafonte, sounding ready for the stump as ever. "And usually the things that they vote for turn out to be--at least in this instance--fairly oppressive and very insensitive."

Belafonte found the idea of playing the oppressive and insensitive one himself "titillating." For guidance, he thought back to Marlon Brando's genteel Nazi in "The Young Lions." "People protested that he played the Nazi so likable. And Marlon's position was, unless you play him likable, you'll never understand him."

But director Nakano doesn't want "Burden" to appear to be a polemic aimed strictly at its titular race. His hope--as a Japanese American with presumably some objectivity in black-white tensions--is that he can offer nearly equal-opportunity discomfort.

"I don't want this to be about white guilt. That's not very interesting. I hope that it will be provoking not just white people but black people as well. I don't want it to be easy for either side."

The hardest question the "White Man's" production team faced was: How Afrocentric to make this alternate reality? Which raised countless corollary questions: Was it whites who went through centuries of slavery and picked cotton? Did blacks wear hoods and lynch? Was there a white equivalent of soul music that enthralled suburban black kids? And so on.

Faced with creating an alternate reality, the production designers went all-out with their fantasy of an Afrocentric America. But eventually, Nakano decided that too many historical questions would be raised and unanswered, and asked that the schemata be toned down, to almost subliminal touches.

"It was disappointing, because as a designer it would be fun to just go wild with that," says costume designer Isis Mussenden. "But it's also our job to feed the story. When everybody read the script, our first instinct was to take it way over the other side, to make it look almost like Africa today with more industrialization. But Desmond really wanted it to be more of that middle ground, so the guy from Middle America could watch it and not be thrown off by the visuals."

The subtle differences are certainly there. In dressing Belafonte's upper-class character, Mussenden faced the challenge of achieving a look of business conservatism without neckties.

"In researching the history of costume in Africa," notes Mussenden, "I noticed the lack of collars and cuffs and lapels and buttoned-up things. And the tie is completely a European thing. All that closed-up-ness is what the tie was about, so we tried to get that but in other pieces. So we stuck with conservative fabrics that you would see in a suit in Barney's, but took the lapels off and gave it a style. We put him in a high collar and this closed-up vest. And Harry has an incredible stature--the man can carry everything --so he made my job a lot easier."

Production designer Naomi Shohan borrowed elements of Moorish architecture for Belafonte's house, and incorporated bits of Islamic and West African design, not just into the wealthy black neighborhoods but also into the white ghettos.

"From the wilder initial ideas, we started to subtract, so we're left with just a little hint," Shohan says. "I was sorry not to get to build domed interiors, but we couldn't have afforded them anyway!"

As for great moments in on-set incongruity: "The white liberation mural was the best one," laughs Shohan. She recalls the unforgettable sight of a black artist painting a portrait of Anglos breaking free of the shackles of their black oppressors on the wall of a project in Central L.A., while dozens of completely baffled African American kids looked on.

In "Burden," of course, Travolta and his fellow oppressees don't ultimately break free of their cultural chains for a happy, evenly multicultural ending. Even in the dimness of the Twilight Zone, justice is not color-blind.

Or, as Belafonte chuckles, "There'll be no 'Banana Boat' at the end of this movie."*

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