Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"Black.White" and Switching Places: Another Opportunity Lost to Convey Something Powerful

"Black.White" can be seen on the Fox FX cable channel Wednesday nights at 10pm E/P.

Switching places is a theme in cinematic comedy that has often found great success. The Parent Trap, Trading Places, and Coming to America were all successful movies that dealt with the theme of drawing lessons from becoming someone different than ourselves. The reason these movies are so fascinating is because the desire to prove that it is the individual that dictates circumstance is a feeling with which we can all empathize.

If I were rich, I would be happy. If I were black, I would know how not to empower racists when they approached me with a racial slur. If I were a parent, I would remain abreast of all the trends and my kids would think I was cool.

It is difficult for many to believe that circumstance will mold an individual just as easily as the individual shapes the circumstance. And with the proliferation of reality TV, it was only a matter of time before producers would use the switching places ploy to create a new hit series dealing with just this difficulty. Produced by Ice Cube and RJ Cutler, “Black.White” transforms the race of two families with the help of expert make-up artists and then releases them to discover the relevance of race in today’s world. They live under the same roof where they have dinner together and discuss the impact of race (or lack thereof) in everyday society.

Drawing over 4 million viewers last Wednesday, the show has been deemed an “instant hit” by the Baltimore Sun. Although the viewership was remarkable, the show struck a bad chord with many including myself. Highlights from the show included the repeated use of the word “Nigger,” the infiltration of an all-black spoken word workshop by the daughter of the white family, and the articulation (by both families) of an absurd amount of stereotypes.

Much like the switching places comedies mentioned above, the premier episode of "Black.White" could have had the potential to teach many Americans a valuable lesson on race and the impact (perceived and/or actual) that it can have on society. Instead, the show elicited nothing more than astonishment and disbelief from its viewers. In short, we had a switching places theme that failed to deal with issues of race in an informative and therapeutic way.

Four million viewers tuned in last week!…

For an hour, Ice Cube and RJ Cutler had the undivided attention of the American people. And on Wednesday night those viewers turned off their television sets with neither closure nor enlightenment. Yet another opportunity lost to convey something powerful.


Zara Thustra said...

I had no idea this show even existed...but do allow me to make a minor contribution: Far too often we expect television to offer a level of criticality that runs counter to its current objectives as an organ of the capitalist industrial complex.
The dominant paradigm of entertainment is meant to flatter the American public and applaud it for it weak and incomplete neoliberal/liberal aims. Needless to say, television will never serve as a mode of real critique, especially when it comes to how one's somatic existence alters reality. As a medium it celebrates the exact opposite, the fetishization of the many ways we avoid ever 'really'about race/ethinicity/class/sex/gender/power/.

Axinar said...

BTW, you can watch the entire pilot here.

The premise of this show is a little whacked, but I'm not quite sure what to think of it yet ...

Brother Smartness said...

First and foremost, thanks for your response. But are you saying that a television show that provides a real critique on important issues is completely out of the realm of possiblity? Although I'm critical of Black.White's first episode, I'm of the opinion that with some serious changes, a show that tackles such an important issue could really get people talking about this in the right way.

Axinar, good looks on the link. I'm going to place it directly in my post so that readers have immediate access to it.

Anonymous said...

I am saying that if a television show genuinely intended to explore issues of race in America in a way that would "enlighten" rather than uncritically reinforce stereotypes, one of the the following would happen:

(1) It would never get picked up by a network.
(2) It would be so woefully misunderstood and misinterpreted that it would suffer the fate of the chappelle show. (Where the creator becomes aware that his enlightenment project has failed despite excellent ratings and a $50 million dollar cheque)

Television is not a medium in and of itself, it relies on capital base that will only allow itself to be mocked just enough to improve ratings. Intentions aside, what is streamed to you in between McDonalds and Pepsi commercials, be it fiction or non-fiction, is meant to do one thing- keep your attention long enough to make someone rich.

I may be wrong, but any real effort to enlighten ought not and cannot be inextricably tied to lining some media mogul's pocket.

So I suppose, my answer is yes. Television shows cannot enlighten and whatever changes one would suggest to attempt to make it so will promptly lead to its non-existence. I have nothing but empathy for the search for a mode of critique that transcends the now 'erudite' world of the written word. But television is too grounded in its systemic origins to serve us in this way.

Alas, the revolution will not be televised.

Badda said...

Um... it's a reality show. It sounds like your criticism is basically saying the script/plot wasn't well written enough. Well um, that's not exactly how reality television works, yanno? They put real people in the situation to get real reactions. And you want to blame Cube and Cutler for this?

Maybe you'd be better suited with a movie or a sitcom with a similar theme, but basically this is just 2 families and their real life reactions to the situations they're put in. If every week isn't an engrossing meditation on the deepest core issues of racism in America, it's because you're looking at a reflection of everyday people and simply living their lives under these circumstances, not Black.White: The Motion Picture - A Spike Lee Joint.

Anonymous said...

It is in fact astonishing that we still consider the plight of our people within the narrow spectrum of color only. As if the historical, sociological, psychological and economic realities that we face have no real factor. We must be carefull when we get into the business of consuming our time trying to befriend and better understand White America. Trying to convey something powerfull like our assimilation and politcal domination. Next time Ice Cube part founder of "Niggaz with Attitudes" needs to expose how many of his people locked up under de-facto slavery. Better yet work on the genocide underway, at best flex some heart for his people and stop looking for acceptance. This is obviously an attempt to be yet another social sedative in which negro entertainers get paid of for. Any mention of "community" involvement on there behalf is miniscule to the poision they spew to the babies.They should stop tap dancing under the banner of concern and true involvement, because at the end of the day all involved will get more money than 99.9% off all humans on earth. At the end of the day ain't a damn thang changed!

Brother Smartness said...

Thanks for responding. I don't think we can let this show off the hook simply because it's a reality TV show, however. As a matter of fact, reality shows are rarely "real." They would be boring as hell if that were the case. That's why these shows have a slew of writers and editors who create a story out of hours of film. Given this process, I think it's important that we criticize producers who take an issue as serious as race and present it to millions of Americans without a clear objective.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching the pilot episode of Black.White. and I must confess that I like the show. As an avid TV watcher, some might even call me a TV addict; I expected them to put highly inflammatory material in the first episode. Hell that’s what hooks us to the show and creates that core audience.

The dinnertime dialogue between both families was very honest, in my opinion. The fact that both families spoke openly about their views, albeit stereotypical and oftentimes downright offensive, should be applauded. How many people would actually sit down and discuss these things with someone from a different race. They brought up topics that I definitely can relate to (when I hear the words storm chaser I DO think of a white person). I didn’t find it offensive-hell any comedian can tell you “It’s funny because it’s true”-not saying that this show was all funny all the time but I think you get my point. Issues of race don’t come along with a neat little bow attached to them. They make us cringe, feel uncomfortable, and hell I even felt like the African American family was letting out some of our secrets. But they're honest opinions, not infallible truths and opinions can change. As the show progresses I hope that they do.

To address the fact that the show does not touch on things in an informative therapeutic way I can only say that the show is a progression. This family can’t come to great epiphanies after 1-day, hell, one week living as a person of another race. That would be down right ludicrous. Instead of criticizing these people for voicing opinions that are not at all foreign, we need to analyze their truths in a realistic fashion.

Questions are being raised that should be addressed. Do black men, which I know most of the members of this sight are, have a chip on their shoulder? Are we as a people paranoid about race? Are we always looking for racist undertones? I’m not saying that I agree with any of this but the show can be used for larger more insightful discussions to come.

Lastly I take issue with the fact that, in my opinion, the white (turned Black) teenage girl had the best poem in the damn slam class yet the teacher (Black woman) criticized her for using big words. “Undulate” and “Reciprocal acceptability" are big words now?!?! Hell, if standards have dropped so low I guess I shouldn’t be proud of just getting into an Ivy League institution-pretentious ending I know.

Brother Darkness said...

I watched the pilot episode sunday night and, to be honest, nothing about it surprised me. And yes, I agree, reality TV is hardly "real" but something about "Black. White" struck me as being so genuinely real that is saddened me. It saddened me b/c I know black families and white families that are just like the two in the show. And I agree with Brother Smartness, this show could be a great launch for racial awareness by "turning" African Americans into Caucasians and vice versa.

To anonymous, I don't think the plight of African Americans is being narrowed to skin color by this show but you have to remember that in America everything is based on skin color. When a non-black person sees me walking down the street he/she is going to react accordingly to the stereotypes that he/she has about black people.

Let me give you a great example: At the school I work at, its full of rich, priviledged kids, mainly white. When they meet me instead of a handshake they give me, what I call, an "ethnic" handshake. We all know what I'm talking about b/c we give them to our boys all the time. Do they give the same handshake to their white brethren? Definitely not. Do they consciously think about the "ethnic" handshake when they see me? Maybe, maybe not. Most racial stereotypical behavior is unconscious unless you are just a racist.

I'll say what irked me the most about the show was how upset the black woman got at the white woman for saying "yo bitch." Now, I can totally understand her being upset but being in a show where race and color is such a slippery slope, she (I think her name is Adrianne) has to pick her battles. We all know that she wouldn't have tripped out if the other lady was black. Thats a fact and thats the kind of response that the show is trying to get rid of.

I don't think Ice Cube helped create this show for acceptance. He is bringing forth something bigger than that. And I agree, WE, people as a whole, have a hard time knowing what anyone goes through until we experience it. And I honestly think its hard to understand the struggle of African Americans until you are on the receiving end of racism.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching this show with great interest. I agree that in the setting in which the people on the show find themselves is not ideal for actually viewing "reality". The subject of the show and the consciousness of the characters is naturally going to color (no pun intended) their responses to their experiences and to the other family. However, this extreme circumstance definately seems to bring out issues that niether family seems willing to address, so far anyway.

For instance, the questions raised by annonymous about whether or not Black people have a chip on their shoulder, or are over conscious of racial issues etc. This is a very good question. I know from my own personal experiences as a target of racism, that it does make you take notice of things that you might not have otherwise. It does tend to damage your view of things a bit. It makes it hard to know what to think sometimes, and it can leave you feeling a bit defensive. I try not to think about it, but I do find myself wondering sometimes "are they doing, saying, or assuming what they are becasue of my race?" I'm sure all people who have been persecuted for any number of reasons could identify with this. It doesn't have to be about race. We've all seen the tv shows about the ugly kid in school who isolates him/herself socially, and becomes suspicious of even genuine attempts at friendship because of the hurt others have caused. Its a survival technique, not an attempt to victimize yourself, and you aren't usually conscious of what you are doing either. I think the white guy in the show doesn't really get that. He probably is seeing something very different than the black man in certain situations, but he sees that as evidence that the black man is just looking for things that aren't there. He doesn't realize (or even ask) why he isn't feeling the same way. Thats why switching skin color alone doesn't do the trick. How could a white man, who has lived his entire life without being a racial target (most likely) possibly understand what it is like to have to second guess the world's reactions to you?

On the other hand, not all racial hyper-awareness issues result from personal experieinces with racism. It is sad, but a great deal is taught to each new generation. We grow up with stories of how our grandfather got harrassed by a cop on his way home and arrested for steeling because he had a weeks pay in his pocket. Now, before anyone goes attacking me, hear me out first. I AM NOT TRYING TO SAY THAT THIS SAME SORT OF THING DOESN"T STILL HAPPEN ALL THE TIME! I am saying that these stories we grow up with, and the news we watch, and the music lyrics we memorize, and all the other messages that society sends us does cause us to be very racially sensitive, even if our own personal experience has been completely lacking any negative race-related events.

White people in general don't have the same messages of group persecution messing with their heads. Even when white people are the victims of racisim, they don't tend to regognize it to the same degree, unless it is unmistakable. Likewise, they don't usually tend to be as easily offended by honest cultural inquiry or assumption as minorities tend to be. For example, the "ethnic" handshake brother darkness mentioned he had noticed white students used exclusivley when greeting him could be seen as a racially steriotypical gesture, but it could also be seen as an attempt at "cultural awareness" or even "cultural adaptation".

Think about it from the other side for a monent. Brother darkness, you knew everyone here understood what you were talking about. You even said, "We all know what I'm talking about b/c we give them to our boys all the time." This begs the question, if we really do "give them to our boys all the time", is this a steriotype? The other question this raises is, do you greet your white bretheren with a "non-ethnic" handshake, and if not, is this a case of steriotyping or of cultural adaptation? Is it possible that the white students were attempting to be genuine? Isn't it possible that this was a case of attempted cultural sensitivity, however misguided it may be? And getting back to my previous reasoning that white people are not as touchy about things like this, do you think any of the white students ever thought about whether you greeted them differently than you greet other black people? I would guess probably not.

On a more personal note, I have had a number of interesting encounters over the last year and a half becasue I have started dreadlocks. This is not something often seen in my part of the country, among blacks or whites. I have recieved a number of comments from complete strangers of all races to which I could have taken great offense, but I didn't. I didn't because I pushed away the years of conditioning and saw those people and their questions in a different way. I saw them as a genuine attempt to reach out and understand something outside of themselves. What tradgedy would I have created had I not responded in kind? Does anyone out there know what I'm takling about?