Is it really that BLACK & WHITE?

Times Staff Writer

THE title song of FX Networks’ new “Black.White.” is both come-on and warning -- “Please don’t believe the hype. Everything in the world ain’t black and white.” It also may turn out to be an unintentionally ironic commentary on the project itself.

The six-episode series is being aggressively hyped by the cable network as a provocative and insightful documentary examining race relations in America. But here in Los Angeles, where the show was filmed and where issues of race continually bubble near the surface, some participants on the program, which premieres Wednesday, say its mix of creative manipulations and reality show tactics undermine the frank discussions about race relations its producers said they wanted to inspire.

In “Black.White.,” two families -- one black, one white -- switch places through the magic of movie industry-caliber makeup. The Sparks family of Atlanta becomes white and the Wurgel family of Santa Monica becomes black. The families lived together in Tarzana for six weeks last summer, and the show traces not only their struggles with experiencing life in another person’s skin but also tensions within and between the respective families.

But before the show has even aired, local residents, from the Crenshaw District to La Crescenta to Hollywood, who took part in the program are coming away from the experience feeling singed.

Hoping to capitalize on its critically acclaimed status of producing edgy dramas such as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” FX is heavily promoting “Black.White.” as a major breakthrough television event, with numerous commercials, print ads and public screenings for politicians and groups such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Oprah Winfrey devoted almost a full hour to “Black.White.,” calling it “a groundbreaking documentary series.”


The project was developed by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who also produced the Oscar-nominated documentary “The War Room,” as well as FX’s documentary series “30 Days” and the unscripted “Freshman Diaries” and “American Candidate” for Showtime. He intends for “Black.White.” to illuminate what he calls “the defining issue of American life,” claiming that race is often “swept under the rug.”

“Race is still very complex and has a thorny set of issues,” Cutler said. “My goal is to tell a story, to tell the experience that these people had over the course of six weeks, and tell those stories as truthfully as possible, the conflicts they had.”

But the questions of truthfulness and misrepresentations have ignited complaints and concerns among some of those associated with the show.

Key creative forces behind “Black.White.,” as well as members of the families, say that, despite the network’s insistence on pushing the documentary label, “Black.White.” does not accurately reflect some of the events prominently featured on the show and that the show’s point of view -- the perspective of the families -- was edited, much like a reality show, to focus on the most confrontational elements.

“There were some moments that were true but others that were designed a little or genetically modified,” said Carmen Wurgel. “It cast a certain slant on reactions. I trusted the integrity of the show, and, overall, I still do, but I don’t respect any manipulation that distorts reality. It’s like taking a fresh orange and adding sweetener when the orange is already sweet enough.”

Questions have been raised in particular about two of the series’ highlighted segments during its first four episodes.

In one, Leimert Park, a village-type area in the Crenshaw District distinguished by coffeehouses and cultural art enclaves, is portrayed as a hotbed for angry blacks who become agitated at the presence of what they believe is an interracial couple: Carmen Wurgel in no makeup and Bruno Marcotulli in black makeup. Although the couple is never seen being openly challenged, Marcotulli declares that he feels threatened by the “bitter, self-pitying people” in the park.

The show lingers on their fears, though Deanna Michaux, a local black advice columnist who went with the couple to the area, said later that the tension they felt was misinterpreted. That misunderstanding was then heightened on the show by the producer’s decision not to provide full context to the incident.

Michaux said that those in the park were reacting to Wurgel’s disrespect of the rituals of the cultural activities, such as the African drum circle. She said that Wurgel was too aggressive in trying to interact with park-goers. “It is an unbalanced and negative view of Leimert Park,” she said. “White people should not be afraid to come here. The message should be, ‘Enjoy the culture and keep it moving.’ ”

Cutler said he had concerns about the sequence, constructing it with a great deal of thought, consideration and debate. “The story we’re ultimately telling is of their experience. It wasn’t my goal to make a definitive statement about what was happening in Leimert Park.”

Meanwhile, the owners of a predominantly white sports bar in La Crescenta say the makers of the show have unfairly tainted the establishment and the community as racist. In the first two episodes, Sparks and his wife speak to two customers who express negative opinions about minorities.

Both Sparks and Cutler acknowledged that the couple separately also spoke to other patrons with less divisive views on minorities, but those interviews were not shown, at least in the first four episodes.

“This is so disturbing to us,” said Leo Lesh, owner of Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar & Grill. “This is not good. They were not looking for anything positive. This is a good community, and we did this to have fun. This will lead to no good ... but the producers could care less about what happens to us. They just want to raise heck.”

A reality show?

STILL, FX Network’s president and general manager, John Landgraf, bristled when asked whether “Black.White.” should be defined as an unscripted series rather than a documentary. The reality genre, he said, “feels at liberty to play it fast and loose with characters and the realities of what really happened.”

But Cutler and Ice Cube, another of the show’s executive producers, have distanced themselves from FX’s documentary tag. Cube said the series is more a “reality experiment,” while Cutler said, “I’m not a social scientist. I’m telling a story. We never said we were telling a comprehensive story.”

And several of those associated with the series pointed out misrepresentations of fact in the initial few episodes:

Wanting to immerse herself in black culture, 18-year-old Rose Wurgel, in black makeup, enrolls in an all-black slam poetry class in Hollywood run by veteran spoken-word artist Poetri and his wife, Juren Smith. What’s not mentioned is that the class, run by the couple for several years, is normally a multicultural mix of students. According to Poetri, the show’s producers instructed him to create a class of all young blacks just for Rose’s experience. The sequence also doesn’t disclose that the couple was fully aware that Rose was white.

Before Brian Sparks is shown talking to the customers at Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar & Grill, there is a scene in which he interviews for a bartending job with co-owner Leslie Lesh. What the producers do not show is that, according to Lesh, she had previously reached an agreement with them to give Sparks a four-day position at the bar under the guise that he needed to interview patrons for a research project.

Not long after that, Sparks is shown talking to a patron who tells him La Crescenta is one of the “last unaffected bastions of middle-class Caucasian America” and that the community did not want a lot of change or “a lot of immigration” that has affected surrounding areas.

Intrigued by her husband’s encounter, Renee Sparks visits the bar without her makeup and engages in a conversation with an unidentified man who tells her that blacks in the area don’t want to assimilate and that they place more emphasis on being “dumb” and denouncing education. Following the conversation, Renee Sparks is shown walking toward the exit with her purse.

Cutler defended not airing any of their conversations with less-biased patrons.

“Did she talk to other people? Yes,” said Cutler. “Did we say that she only talked to one man? No. He was in the bar, she met this guy, they had a conversation. What am I supposed to do? We shot 2,000 hours of footage. Did I show every minute of what happened? No.”

There are other, more garden-variety instances in which the truth appears shaded, even in the families’ biographies. Advance materials describe the Wurgel family as “Carmen Wurgel, Bruno Marcotulli, and their daughter Rose.” But Rose referred to Marcotulli at last week’s premiere of the show as her mother’s boyfriend. Wurgel, in a later interview, said the couple are partners but are not married.

And while hidden cameras are sometimes used in the show as the families interact with the outside world, there is no mention that the presence of a full camera crew may have influenced certain scenes, as when Sparks, in white makeup, is seen marveling when a salesman at a Pasadena golf shop helps him try on a pair of shoes. “It’s never happened to me as a black in 40 years, but the first time I go and buy shoes as a white, I have it done,” he says on the show. Sparks had not attempted to shop in the same store as a black man for comparison.

It’s ‘trivializing’ race

NELSON GEORGE and Tonya Lewis Lee, two filmmakers who have been involved in several projects about race, say that the issue is too delicate and volatile to be handled with anything less than sensitivity and honesty. Journalist and cultural critic George believes the series could potentially aggravate racial tensions, particularly in L.A., rather than leading to more understanding.

“When race is featured on shows like this, one of the agendas is to create racial tension,” said George, who produced the HBO film “Everyday People,” which explored the multicultural dynamics of several people affiliated with a New York restaurant. “If the world moves too easily, it’s not good TV. What this show seems to be doing is taking an important subject and trivializing it.

“On a daily basis, people of all races work and interact with each other more than they ever have. To have a show like this that takes an evolving situation and puts a more nuanced dynamic on it is not only bad TV, it’s phony and potentially dangerous.”

Lewis, a producer of “That’s What I’m Talking About,” a recent TV Land documentary on African Americans in the entertainment arts, added, “When it comes to race, you have to be real careful. Documentary should be about truth. I applaud these filmmakers for trying to do something interesting, but there should be a disclaimer.”

Cutler knows that “Black.White.” will push buttons, but denies that it will pour fuel on the fire of racial tension: “If it does, I hope it’s a fire that burns away the misunderstanding and ignorance that makes us shut our eyes.”