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Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Black. White." — Three Episodes In

Three episodes into the FX series “Black. White.” the show is at least compelling to watch, although falls short of its advertised promise to have the ability to affect any sort of change in race relations. That was likely too ambitious of a goal for a show anyway.

“Black. White.” has paired up two families — one white, one black — to live together, and experience life outside of the house as the opposite race (through the use Hollywood type makeup). The potential of the show is hurt by poor casting.

The producers clearly went with the typical reality show mold of putting conflicting personalities together to create conflict. That was fine for shows like Real World, where nothing was really going on, and manufacturing tension was necessary. Here, the experiment is enough to raise compelling issues, and the personality conflicts merely cloud the issues.

The first two episodes had me embarrassed to be white. The white couple, Carmen and especially Bruno Wurgel, came off as idiots. Bruno’s clearly never experienced being the victim of prejudice, and couldn’t wait to tell the world how letting it roll of your back was the answer we’ve all been searching for. He was like a child with permission to say a bad word as he kept tossing out the N-word, saying he couldn’t wait to be called the derogatory name and watch the stunned reactions of others when he didn’t get angry.

Carmen is just the opposite. Her eagerness to be open to the black experience had her missing the point, and puts her ignorance on display. By jumping in with both feet, such as offering a ridiculous poem with a gathering of a slam poetry group, she shows that she doesn’t get that there are real issues for blacks regarding race. Last night’s episode in which they walked through a black gathering as a mixed couple — Bruno in makeup, Carmen as herself — may have been a turning point.

The black couple, Brian and Renee Sparks, were exposed as having their own racial prejudice in last night’s episode. Prior to that I actually agreed with them almost without fail, except for their asinine attitude that they were there to teach the white people about blacks but really had nothing to learn in return. But their overreaction to Carmen’s use of “black creature” in her poem shed a light on the way they teach their son to be aware of race.

I get why Brian and Renee want their son to be more aware of race issues, and most of what they say makes sense. Nick is fairly clueless, and seems to want to be the stereotyped black teen. He’s apparently out of school at age 16 due to disciplinary problems and proud of it. But Brian and Renee’s reaction to the poem suggests possible paranoia. Using “black creature” was a poor attempt at the poetic by Carmen, not racism. (To be fair, Carmen’s use of “bitch” with Renee during dialogue coaching may have had them on edge.)

The second episode showed why the personality conflicts hurt the show. Carmen went shopping for clothes for her and Bruno to attend a black church (as black people). Renee tagged along to supposedly help, yet allowed Carmen to buy traditional African garb. The Wurgels, of course, looked ridiculous, and Renee merely played dumb as if she hadn’t been asked for input. This had little to do with race, and plenty to do with two people not getting along.

Rose Wurgel, the white daughter, seems to get the project better than anyone. She eases into situations, such as the slam poetry class, aware that racial differences exist. She wants to fully experience black culture, but isn’t making a mockery of it by rushing in.

It is definitely worth watching this series.

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