Reviewed by J.R. Turner
Black. White. is a reality show that brings together the white Wurgel family and the black Sparks family to live together under one roof and through the magic of Hollywood make-up, experience life as the opposite race. At first, I was skeptical this would be a worthy show—despite my rather large following of most reality programs. Once I discovered Ice Cube was part of the production team (also including R.J. Cutler and Matt Alvarez) my worries about balance vanished and I watched the series avidly.
As the series opened, it became apparent to me that race wasn’t the only dynamic at play between these two families. Personalities clashed, approaches to the project were varied, and while most were sincere in their efforts, miscommunications and preconceived notions added fuel to the fire.
Specifically, Bruno—the white father—came into the project prepared to prove his belief that racism exists in the mind of the person expecting to receive it. Despite his continued statements that he believes racism still exists in America, he would be hard put to bring up an example that wasn’t born of stereotyping. Of all the participants, his performance in the series was the most difficult to watch. I don’t recommend skipping your blood pressure medication.
Contrary to Bruno is his daughter, Rose. She embodies the spirit of what I believe this project was meant to accomplish. She gave herself wholly over to the experience and engaged fully in the Slam Poetry group she joined in black makeup. Most interesting was her difficulty in continuing the charade, her sense of betrayal to her classmates for not being honest about her skin color, and the overwhelming reaction they had to her later revelation. Rose is one smart cookie and in my estimation, had the truest experience of all six family members.
Her counterpart, Nicholas, on the other hand, appeared almost disinterested in the entire experiment. At times he stated he didn’t really care about racism and that to him, being called the “N-word” was no big deal. Which of course horrified both his parents. I thought it was telling of how very different the younger generation thinks compared to those who have lived long enough to recognize racism even in its more modern, subtle form. Of course, it would be hard for any teenager to get excited by etiquette class—the show’s parallel to Rose’s Slam Poetry group.
Brian, the black father, seemed to me the most stable adult in the home. His frustrations with Bruno’s set agenda are palpable and understandable, but through it all, he maintains a composure I couldn’t have. His experiences as a white bartender, and the conversations he engages in, are very enlightening—some made me wince. His efforts with his son, including taking him to a black barber shop to discuss racism and the return of an expensive (bling-bling) watch, touched me. Brian’s candor is riveting and compelling.
Both mothers, in comparison, are equally emotional. Carmen, the white mother, for all her “weirdness”, is actually very sincere in her efforts. The epitome of open-minded, almost flower-child naiveté drives the more pragmatic Renee absolutely crazy. Renee sends out a strong message that Carmen’s behavior isn’t so much about racism, as it is about immaturity. When Carmen innocently calls her the “B-word” during a dialect session, Renee sees it as an intended insult and continues to judge her nearly to the end of the series. Bruno, again, only makes matters worse.
Sensational moments, such as what might be considered ‘reverse racism’ during a walk in Leimert Park, Bruno’s unbelievable audacity to declare that “black daddy’s don’t stick around” and Renee’s use of the word “Negro” during a struggle against Nicholas’s obsession with “thug” culture, make this series more honest, and at times, more painful than expected.
As much as I watched out of curiosity, there is an undeniable power to this series that can’t be related in words. A taste of it carries to the viewer, this sense that the obstacles to eliminating racism are as much cultural as they are about skin color, as much about personalities, as they are about lifestyles. In the end, I felt empowered by watching the dynamics in more ways than I anticipated. There is hope, however, in the younger generation and that hope is clear in this series. I highly recommend viewing the DVD to anyone interested furthering their social conscience, or who simply may wish to explore how well their own preconceived notions hold up to reality.