MOVIE REVIEW : Racial Role Reversal in 'White Man's Burden'


During the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the four police officers caught on video beating Rodney G. King, a woman from the all-white Simi Valley jury called a radio talk show and, stunned by the reaction in the African American community, said it was clear to her and the other jurors that King had been in total charge of his destiny that night.

All he had to do to stop the beating, she said, was stop resisting.

It is for that woman, that jury and everyone who cannot imagine what it is to be routinely harassed and provoked by police that Desmond Nakano's "White Man's Burden" may do the most good. The movie, a "Twilight Zone"-style drama in which the class positions of black and white Americans are reversed, will--in regard to nearly everyone else--be preaching to the converted.

"White Man's Burden" works better as a conventional urban drama than as an essay on race relations, which is its resolute purpose. It is a mostly somber piece of work, the story of a struggling ghetto white man (John Travolta) who takes out his frustration over a lost job and his family's eviction from their home by kidnaping and demanding restitution from the company CEO who caused him to be fired.

The triggering incident occurs when Travolta's Lou Pinnock volunteers to deliver some material to the baronial home of CEO Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte), and while lost on the grounds, gets a glimpse through an upstairs window of the boss's wife (Margaret Avery) changing clothes. A lowly white man looking at the naked body of a powerful black man's woman? The distasteful thought prompts Thomas to drop a subconscious hint to one of his managers, and Pinnock is sacked.

After establishing the film's fantasy premise, and getting the outraged Lou alone for a weekend of running and hiding with his hostage, the film settles into a two-person allegory, with the lessons learned by each man about the other making an all-too-pat sermon about race relations in general.

Travolta and Belafonte play well off of each other, and the film is at its best exploring the prejudices and attitudes of their characters. But it's a familiar story, where only the colors have been changed.

Nakano, a Japanese American screenwriter ("Last Exit to Brooklyn") making his directing debut, hangs the success of his ambitious message on the assumption that by simply flopping the roles and stereotypes of blacks and whites, we will all be left equally disoriented.

It doesn't quite work that way. Black and white audiences may react differently to the film, as news stories about its segregated preview screenings suggest. There will certainly be more personal satisfaction, and a few good laughs, for blacks in the stream of altered cultural references: a white lawn jockey in a rich black neighborhood, TV commercials dominated by black actors, a poor white child's preference for a black super-hero doll over a white one.

But in Nakano's starkly contrasting world, where every scene occurs in the violent white ghetto or in a black Beverly Hills, and where racially mixed police patrols stand in for the paranoid middle class, there isn't much room for exploring the nuances of racism in the '90s.

In fact, Nakano's reversal has nothing to add and is nowhere near as eye-opening as "Black Like Me," a book and movie more than 30 years old about the experiences of white reporter John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin and traveled as a black man through the segregated South. The role-reversal gimmick there was real, and the white readers and viewers to whom it was appealing, were compelled by their identification with Griffin to feel the hatred, indignities and humiliations routinely heaped on Southern blacks.

"White Man's Burden" hits the same buttons, and you begin to tick off a checklist of abuses that Lou and his wife (Kelly Lynch) and the other whites endure. But it does not have the same impact because beyond its superficial racial twists, it is a conventional drama so stacked against the power class that the racial issues become increasingly irrelevant.

It is always easier, if not emotionally inescapable, to sympathize with a common man wronged than the fat-cat responsible, and would be no matter what the color combination.

* MPAA rating: R, strong language and some violence. Times guidelines: Think of it as a soft R. The profanities rain down, but the violence is routine action fare.


'White Man's Burden'

John Travolta: Pinnock

Harry Belafonte: Thaddeus

Kelly Lynch: Marsha

Margaret Avery: Megan

Tom Bower: Stanley

A Lawrence Bender/A Band Apart production, released by Savoy Pictures. Written and directed by Desmond Nakano. Producer Lawrence Bender. Cinematographer Willy Kurant. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Music Howard Shore. Production design Naomi Shohan. Art direction John Ivo Gilles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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