Oppression Roulette

In Get Shorty, John Travolta glided through his role with the confidence and smoothness of a true star, and with an infectious delight at being allowed to show it. The film was a trifle, finally, but Travolta's effortless command of the screen was reestablished beyond doubt. It's pleasing to see that Travolta is using the clout of his comeback not only to make some serious Tinsel Town loot--as with his upcoming, John Woo-directed actioner, Broken Arrow--but also to do a small, unusual film like White Man's Burden.

In a conceit that Rod Serling--in his more didactic mode--would have loved, White Man's Burden is set in an alternate-universe version of the U.S. in which black people are the ruling class and whites are a minority and underclass, hated and feared, oppressed by the police, living in misery in crime-addled 'hoods. Travolta plays a blue-collar worker in a candy factory, an honest man who loses his job through a misunderstanding, can't find work elsewhere and resorts to kidnaping the owner of the factory (Harry Belafonte), demanding his lost wages.

White Man's Burden demonstrates Travolta's range, for those who either haven't seen or have forgotten his early work before he fell out of fashion. As breezy and sure-footed as he is in Get Shorty, he is equally lost, confused and panicky with defeat here. Having played dangerous-yet-suave gangsters to subtle perfection in two consecutive black comedies, he's now deeply touching as this decent, inarticulate fellow, dazed by his insurmountable bad luck.

The slight paunch he's developed in recent years seemed in Shorty to indicate nothing more than a fondness for good food and a justified self-assurance that it wouldn't mar his attractiveness. In Burden, it suggests the bad diet of poverty, and gives his movements a poignant awkwardness. Most notably, the star makes the choice to play the role with a sort of generic American-urban accent--a heightened version of the goombah-ese he spoke in Saturday Night Fever--and pulls off this risky choice admirably.

Belafonte, who may never have gotten his due as a film actor, hits the role of the factory owner just right--a croaky-voiced cold fish who does have a heart in there somewhere. The strong work of the two leads, and the fascination of the general premise, carries Burden--as the social satire it's intended to be, the film feels thin and underdeveloped.

The writer-director is Desmond Nakano, a (Japanese-American) screenwriter making his directorial debut. He comes up with some clever touches, like the white-faced hitching-post boy in front of a rich black man's house, or the way the face of Belafonte's ostensibly liberal wife (Margaret Avery) falls when her son (Bumper Robinson) brings home a white date. But for almost every neat brush stroke like these, you sit there thinking of ways that it could have been taken further.

There's some sting when you see Travolta's young son (Andrew Lawrence) flip through the channels on TV and see nothing but black faces, but why not give the moment the final detail: one program featuring a comfortably homogenized family of whites in the style of The Cosby Show? When Travolta and Belafonte are driving through a poor neighborhood and the car passes one of those brightly painted urban murals, I wanted the camera to stay on it a second or two longer--I wanted to see what an urban mural in a poor white 'hood would look like.

The biggest problem with Nakano's script, perhaps, is that he allows the (rather improbable) kidnaping plot to limit the film's scope. Nakano's screenplay for American Me was bad and overambitious; his script for White Man's Burden is badly underambitious. It's as if kidnaping were the only way Nakano could come up with to keep an extremely rich guy and an extremely poor guy talking to each other.

Admittedly, that's probably about the only way it could happen in real life, too, but by focusing on only two characters, Nakano passes up all sorts of juicy, provocative possibilities. Where are the black supremacists? What about a white nationalist demagogue in the style of Farrakhan? Or what about middle-class black kids trying to emulate white music stars?

Come to think of it, what about the black middle class, period? Its existence is never acknowledged in movies from our universe, and it's invisible in this one, too. But the middle class is the societal arena in which most of the interaction between the races takes place.

White Man's Burden is an absorbing and, ultimately, a likable film, albeit more for its stimulating potential than for its execution. If Nakano simplifies the conflicts, he at least doesn't misdiagnose them. He recognizes that racial markers are a blind behind which lies the true division in our society: class.

That if the status of the races were reversed, the rich would still be the rich and the poor would still be the poor and the problems would be basically just the same, may seem like a pretty elementary lesson. Sadly, though, when it comes to our racial attitudes these days, it seems like the elementary lessons are what we all need.

White Man's Burden:
Directed by Desmond Nakano; with John Travolta, Harry Belafonte, Tom Bower, Kelly Lynch, Margaret Avery and Sheryl LeeRalph. Rated

 
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