Reality show makes contestants swap race to explore US bigotry

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The Independent US

The miracle-working powers of reality television have already allowed ugly people to become beautiful, rich people to live like country yokels and hillbillies to live in a Beverly Hills mansion. Now, in the latest twist on the reality genre, a white family will find out what it feels like to be black, and vice-versa.

A six-part series, called Black. White, has just been picked up by the cable station FX for broadcast next spring and promises to explore the single most explosive issue in American society - race.

The premise is that two families live under the same roof in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana and essentially swap racial identities. The Sparks family of Atlanta undergo three to five hours of make-up every day to morph from black to white, while the Wurgels of Santa Monica emerge from their own heavy treatment by one of Hollywood's top make-up artists looking plausibly black.

The series has more serious credentials than most: its producers include an award-winning reality documentarian called RJ Cutler and the actor and rapper Ice Cube. Their intent, it seems, is less sensationalist than it is deeply political. "The loud message of the show is that we are a divided nation," Mr Cutler told reporters recently. "But we can come together if we're willing to talk about our differences and work to see the world through the eyes of other people."

The challenge for the make-up team is to make the families not only look convincing on camera, but also in their day-to-day interactions with ordinary people in the streets and the shopping malls of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Keith VanderLaan was previously responsible for the make-up on Mel Gibson's blood-spattered religious drama The Passion of the Christ.

He and the producers spent a year working out a way of making the outward appearance of the participants convincing. The show is likely to stand or fall on how well they have succeeded - whether the series really has something to say about race or whether, as some fear, it comes off simply as a modern-day version of a minstrel show.