Sunday, November 4, 2007

"White Man's Burden" - a film review by Ugo Eriobuna

Ugo Eriobuna
Review Of White Man’s Burden
1995 Release.

What would happen if race roles in America were reversed? What if blacks had all the power and whites had to fight prejudice and racism at every turn? Such is the setting of writer/director Desmond Nakano's brilliant film, White Man's Burden. The movie is a tightly constructed drama about Louis Pinnock (John Travolta), a reliable blue collar man who works in a factory owned by high-society business man Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte.) At home, Louis had to deal with a rough neighborhood, gang violence, and trying to provide for his wife (Kelly Lynch) and two kids.

The opening scenes of “White Man’s Burden” are very interesting, as it turns the tables on the color-coding in America society. It simply reverses the stereotypical roles of blacks and whites: the black characters are the wealthy, powerful establishment types living in big mansion in the suburbs, and the whites are a poor, disadvantaged minority group.

The greatest shortcoming of this quality film is its oversimplification of racial issues. It does however succeed by exposing a lot of our assumptions and prejudices. When John Travolta, as a factory worker uneasily approaches the mansion of Harry Belafonte, the millionaire factory owner, we’re forced to recognize that if the worker were black and the rich man were white, the scene would seem stable. Because it isn’t – because privilege is turned upside down in the world of this film – we’re forced to re-evaluate every conversation and difference in the film.
Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, a man who has been sent to his boss’ home to deliver a package. Belafonte is the factory owner, Thaddeus Thomas. Louis is hard-working, has a good record at the factory, and is happy to do this extra work on a voluntary basis in order to score points with his superiors. He was told by the housekeeper to go around the rear door of the mansion; he pauses uncertainly on the lawn and happens to see the rich man’s wife, dressed only in a towel.

Thaddeus sees Louis on the lawn, and jumps into conclusion that he is a ‘peeping tom.’ But he doesn’t make any accusations. He simply suggests, at a social function, that the factory should choose another man the next time they send somebody over to deliver a package. It is a well-known function of organizations that orders from the top get amplified on the way down to the bottom, so that a wish becomes an edict. Louis is then fired for this act.

This is not good. He has a family to feed. His wife (Kelly Lynch) fears they’ll be evicted from their home. In desperation Louis goes to Thaddeus’ home to plead his innocence, but he was turned down completely. And so, in desperation, he kidnaps the rich man - looking not for ransom but for justice.

It’s at this point that I thought the movie goes off the rails. It turns into a routine kidnapping thriller, complete with an extended chase scene, violence and some kind of confrontations with the police saying “he fits the description.”

Inevitably, Thaddeus and Louis develop respect for one another, and the millionaire learnt his lesson. But that’s not enough of a payoff for this movie because it’s obvious, it’s easy, and it comes too late, after action scenes derived from a thousand other movies.

What I wish to see in this movie is that the entire film had devoted itself to the examination of its challenging idea. The early scenes are clever and effective at using the reversal gimmick to point out the countless ways that skin color affects behavior, attitudes and expectations. Consider for example the way the white character deals at various points in the movie with black cops. Consider the cops’ assumptions. Savor the dialogs at the dinner party in the film, where the black millionaire entertains his guests with confused racist generalizations. Watch the way the millionaire’s wife reacted when her son came home with (gasp) a white girl. I only wished the film would have been pushed further on this direction – dealing with the social situations in the same way and not switching lanes in the middle of the film.

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