After the early days of totemic figures such as Sidney Poitier and crossover wiseacres such as Richard Pryor, black stars are beginning to be cast more diversely, but (Spike Lee apart) the majority of movies are made by, and aimed at, whites. This may explain the need to caricature serious issues which many black people face every day.
White Man's Burden is the latest example of the reductive way in which the politics of colour are packaged up as simple- minded entertainment. The film simply turns American society inside-out, with complacent black fat-cats (like Harry Belafonte) ruling over hardworking but downtrodden whites (like John Travolta). The film follows in the footsteps of comedies such as Melvin Van Peebles's Watermelon Man, True Identity and Soul Man, essentially colour-coded flicks, which see their protagonists blacking or whiting up to have a little fun with stereotypes. (Though a poor film, True Identity confronts the caste system of casting - Lenny Henry's actor changes pigment to extend his range beyond movies like Uptown Harlem Pimps on Crack).
These are films that explore race issues with about the same intellectual vigour as Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire probed gender. At first glance, White Man's Burden goes beyond such superficial treatment by extending the role-swap metaphor to the whole of society. All the more disappointing, then, when it offers up the same old reactionary stereotypes.
Isn't it time for mainstream cinema's handling of racism to incorporate a hint of ambiguous realism? For a film which doesn't deal in truisms; a film that isn't quite so, well, black and white?
Liese SpencerReuse content