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Trading Places

In the parallel universe of White Man's Burden, things really aren't all that different from what they are in the real world. America continues to be a place where the population is divided into the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. The powerful are impossibly smug in their ability to savor creature comforts and conspicuous consumption. The powerless make do with minimum wages, low expectations and few opportunities. The powerful speak condescendingly of "those people" who are somehow "genetically inferior," who are "beyond being helped." The powerless are victimized by racist cops, demoralized by color-coded prejudices -- and, sometimes, driven to the edge by alternating currents of rage, desperation and toxic self-hatred.

The only difference is, in the world reimagined by writer/director Desmond Nakano, whites are the ones who fill the ranks of the disenfranchised, while blacks are the ones who call the shots and set the agenda.

By turns satirically exaggerated and seriously melodramatic, White Man's Burden attempts to provoke thought and ignite insights by offering a reverse image of everything that's wrong with race relations in contemporary America. The film is a wildly uneven mix of cunning calculation and impassioned naivete, spiked with a healthy dose of self-parody. In many respects, it evokes the painfully sincere spirit of liberal-minded '60s and '70s movies about "The Negro Issue." In fact, it's not all that difficult to imagine Nakano's script actually being filmed in the late 1960s or early 1970s as a conventional black-and-white melodrama, with Ray Milland as the self-absorbed businessman who's too out of it to recognize his own bigotry and Robert Hooks -- or, better still, Sidney Poitier -- as the blue-collar wage slave who takes drastic steps to restore his financial stability and self-esteem.

By reversing the racial power structure, and by casting Harry Belafonte and John Travolta in the lead roles, Nakano goes a long way toward breathing fresh life into the conventions of those well-intentioned but hopelessly simplistic movies from two and three decades ago. But he doesn't breathe into it so much life that we can't see, every bit as clearly as Nakano himself sees, that there's something inherently condescending -- if not downright paternalistic -- about making even valid points with so much sledgehammer obviousness. Mind you, that knowledge does not keep Nakano from wielding his own sledgehammer with all the graceless single-mindedness of Stanley Kramer (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) or Melvin Van Peebles (Watermelon Man). But at least Nakano manages to earn a few laughs while using his movie as a blunt instrument to make points.

Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, an industrious but poorly educated factory worker who's determined to prove himself worthy of being promoted to a foreman's job. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to please his supervisor, Louis agrees to make a delivery to the palatial home of the factory's owner, businessman Thaddeus Thomas (Belafonte). Even more unfortunately, while on the grounds of Thomas' estate, Louis takes a wrong turn and stops near the window of a room in which Thomas' wife is dressing. That's where Thomas sees him. And Thomas doesn't like what he sees -- or, for that matter, what he imagines Pinnock has seen. One thing leads to another, rash assumptions are made, worst suspicions are fulfilled and Louis is summarily fired.

For Thomas, it is an unimportant incident, easily and quickly forgotten. But for Louis, the firing is merely the first mishap in a chain of humiliations. Unable to find another job, he's unable to provide for his family. He can't even pay the rent on their modest but well-tended home. So while his wife (Kelly Lynch) and their children move in with her mother (Carrie Snodgress), he has to fend for himself. And when he goes out one evening to relax with a few drinks, Louis is mistaken for a felony suspect and brutally rousted by brutal cops.

Eventually, Louis decides that one man is responsible for all his misfortunes: Thaddeus Thomas. So he kidnaps the businessman, intending to ask for nothing more than a lump-sum severance payment. Not surprisingly, nothing good comes of this.

White Man's Burden has all the subtlety of a tabloid headline, and all the depth of an editorial cartoon. Because of budgetary constraints, Nakano -- a first-time director whose resume includes co-writing credits for Last Exit to Brooklyn and American Me -- was forced to skimp on details while dramatizing his role-reversal gimmick. Indeed, he was forced to skimp on everything: street scenes are noticeably under-populated, and the movie as a whole has the tawdry look of something filmed quickly and lit too brightly for a non-premium cable network.

And yet, for all that, White Man's Burden percolates with enough rough-edged wit and genuine moral outrage to be much more than the sum of its parts. In an age when many movies take pride in being about nothing but other movies -- or, to be more precise, about an unreality that has everything to do with the movies and little to do with life as we know it -- Nakano earns respect simply for trying to find a fresh way to tackle a vexing social issue. At the very least, he has made a movie about something that matters -- arguably, the most important something that is troubling America right now. Good intentions are never enough, of course. But they should count for something.

And John Travolta's bold performance as Louis Pinnock should count for even more. Travolta has been everybody's favorite comeback kid in recent months, thanks to his enormously entertaining performances in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. But White Man's Burden offers Travolta a far more challenging role to play, and encourages him to take much greater risks. To his credit, Travolta doesn't merely rise to the occasion -- he dashes across the high wire without a net.

For one thing, there's his decision to play his role with vocal mannerisms that are normally associated with poorly educated African-Americans. This is an extraordinary gamble for a white actor to take in a mainstream movie -- one wrong move, one overemphasized line, and Travolta could come across as a white-faced darkie in a crude minstrel show. But Travolta doesn't make a wrong move, doesn't push too hard. He makes Pinnock a victim who rebels against passively accepting his victimization. Midway through the film, there's a quietly remarkable scene in which Pinnock must bite his tongue to keep from saying anything to the cops who have entered his home to evict him and his family. As he struggles to swallow his rage, he notices the withering gaze of his wife and flinches in unabashed shame. The scene -- which strikes dim echoes of an anecdote in Soul on Ice about a black man rousted by a white cop -- is discomfortingly powerful in its graphic depiction of legally sanctioned emasculation. Travolta makes us feel his character's shame and fury, makes us understand the utter helplessness of the disenfranchised in such a situation. This scene alone is enough to justify all manner of loose talk about a possible Oscar nomination.

Belafonte is stuck in what amounts to the role of straight man. And it is no small tribute to his talent as an actor that he gives the character some complexity, so that he sounds truly surprised as he's forced to confront the full scope of his thoughtless, heartless bigotry. As it turns out, Thaddeus Thomas didn't really intend for Pinnock to be fired. He simply wanted this uppity white boy never to darken his doorway again. But that, Thomas insists, doesn't mean he is a racist. Yeah, right. All the Louis Pinnocks in the world -- Burden's world and the real world -- have heard that one before.

White Man's Burden.
Directed by Desmond Nakano. With John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.
Rated R.
90 minutes.


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