Films often reflect the social tensions of their age. The enervated post-Watergate '70s saw thrillers like Network and The China Syndrome, while the most decadent "me years" of the '80s brought several parables of greed -- from Less than Zero to Wall Street -- to the public eye. Thus, when the mid-'90s witnessed a renewed national interest in race issues -- affirmative action, the O.J. Simpson Case, the Million Man March, and the once-possible Powell candidacy -- it's not too surprising to have seen White Man's Burden take its place between internet movies and gangster flicks during that period.
Reflecting the divergence of opinion in our current race debate, White Man's Burden is really two movies in one: a wry, mildly engaging race gimmick, and a deeply moving class drama. As a result, White Man's Burden is a confused yet courageous film that, in its attempt to comment on the subtleties of America's race condition, ultimately falls prey to the stark cinematic impulses of Hollywood.
First, the gimmick: Burden is set in an alternate reality in which blacks make up the power structure and whites are disenfranchised. This Twilight Zone bit does have all the white gangs and abusive black cops we all expected, and, when they appear, the schtick seems as hyperbolic and unconstructive as one would fear. However,this reversed color line resonates much more strongly in the details. John Travolta's son, transfixed by a TV world without white role models, only wants black action figures at the toy store. Harry Belafonte's wife, who speaks patronizingly of the "adorable little white kids" at a social benefit, edgily smiles at her son's date, a (gasp) white girl. When film shades their world of blites and whacks with nuances such as these, the gimmick works. When Burden tries to rely on the shock value of said theme to propel the story, it doesn't.
One soon questions the need for the contrivance at all. The heart of Burden has less to do with race than with socio-economic class. The film tells of a menial factory worker (Travolta) who, after accidentally seeing the boss's wife naked while delivering a package, subsequently loses his job. Much of Burden then follows Travolta's frustrated attempts to maintain both his pride and his family in the face of unemployment and an uncaring world. Here, the film -- thanks to Travolta -- strikes deep. We empathize with his palpable aggravation, and we understand the source of his confused and desperate rage, even though we may question Travolta's surprising act of restitution. Forget the race device -- the true achievement of this film is its all-too-real portrayal of unemployment's debilitating effects on those caught within its crushing grip.
However, the transcendant humanity of Travolta's winning performance tends to undermine the story' s fliprace hook. It seems almost insulting that Hollywood uses white actors to offer genuine insight into the crisis facing the citizens and communities of our inner cities. To give dubious credit to first time writer/director Desmond Nakano, questions of race and class become as convoluted in Burden as they are in real life. Consequently, it seems unrealistic to pin the blame for the tension between Travolta and Belafonte solely on race or economics.
Substantial enough to initiate real dialogue on the blurred distinction between race and class at the heart of America's race tensions, Burden is robbed of much of its dramatic power by the artifices of film convention. The movie cannot decide whether to be subtle or controversial, whether to raise intriguing questions or to exploit them for cinematic effect. Its problem ultimately lies not so much in the film's use of color as in the character of its content. While reversing race roles to comment on extremes of prejudice in modern society, Burden tantalizes most when it portrays these issues to be much more than skin deep.