March 27, 2006Feature
Believe The Hype: Some Things ARE Black. White.
The truth is, signing up for this show gave a white family, the Wurgels, the gift every white person secretly joneses for, namely, permission to use the N-word in mixed company. As a white chick who has never met Ice Cube, I'm sticking with the euphemism.
Meet the the Wurgels: Bruno, a dyed-in-the-wool Los Angeleno with a huge ego and a midlife crisis, believes racism's just a bunch of people whining and victimizing themselves. Carmen, his girlfriend, is a civil rights baby who yearns to get in touch with her Politically Correct roots and uncover the secret culture of the Afro-American. Rose, 17, her daughter, is the show's sensible center and just like you and me, here to learn why we white chicks can't shake our booty or rhyme.
|His wife Renee seems to be here for revenge against generations of white oppression, and no one asked their son, Nick, if he wanted to be here at all.|
Thanks to the power of airbrushing and several hours in the makeup chair, the Wurgels and the Sparks get to swap races and go out into the world to see how they're treated. At home, in the house they share in the LA suburbs, they hang in their normal skin and are put to the task of coaching one another on how to pass. No one has to eat bugs, bungee-jump or get voted off the island, but it still feels like a game show, where whoever is able to lose their preconceptions first, wins. Rose has got it in the bag.
|Bruno just sees it as opportunity for him to strut around with all the pretend authority and street cred his airbrushed black skin affords him. Expectedly, this is exactly how it turns out.|
While practicing talking black, Carmen reads "yo, bitch!" off a photocopied list of slang terms someone on the show presumably provided her with. To my annoyance, we never get to see how the sheet defines "bitch," but it doesn't matter because the way Renee responds, you'd think Carmen had used the aforementioned N-word. "How do you say that to someone?" Renee keeps repeating, throughout that episode, with big, incredulous eyes that no one buys for a moment. "You don't just call someone 'bitch,'" Renee says. Carmen, being a white chick, bursts into tears. They don't put Carmen and Renee together much after that.
Sure, Carmen's obsessive and proto-hippie attempt for the whole world to hold hands is obnoxious (and very typical of a certain kind of white woman, especially in California) and sometimes ventures into the creepy — like describing a girl as a "beautiful black creature" in a way that screams "Nubian fetishist" — but it's not like Renee was ever going to be Carmen's best friend.
Renee was in whiteface once, as I recall, in the pilot. Since then we've seen her in the house's kitchen, bedroom and living room, usually rolling her eyes and complaining to Brian about Carmen. Until Renee steps up and joins the game, I'm not inclined to cut her any slack — though I'll admit it's fun to watch her make Carmen cry.
The Brian/Bruno dynamic would be even more interesting if it weren't for Black. White.'s main failing, namely, that it's set in LA and not Manhattan, Kansas. When Brian and Bruno go shopping in Beverly Hills as two white guys, they get great service. When Brian and Bruno go shopping in Beverly Hills in blackface, they get great service. Me, I think that has less to do with racism and more to do with Beverly Hills. It also makes it hard to believe Brian — though you want to! — when he tries to point out examples of people acting nervous on the streets around the black men. Sorry, Brian, but I think that chick on Rodeo Drive with the Prada bag was just looking to see if that was YOUR stretch Hummer blocking her Land Rover.
The LA setting causes a similar problem with Nick, the Sparks' disenchanted teenaged son. He refuses to practice diction, refuses to talk white even with the makeup on, saying he's just gonna be who he is and try to pass. In Manhattan, Kansas, maybe he'd get some fishy looks. But in Los Angeles, a white guy affecting the unintelligible drawl of a street thug is something you see on any street corner west of Pasadena. Yeah, you're passing, Nick. You look just exactly like one of those white kids who tries to act black.
Rose joins an all-black poetry class and shows up in makeup, determined to pass. On the first day they go around the room naming their favorite musicians and rappers, Chuck D, Mary J. In what might be the show's most painful moment, when it gets to her, Rose blurts out, "I'm really into the Cranberries." Oh, girl, could you have picked a whiter band?
But she's determined not to let setbacks stop her, and when they all get up to rhyme, she rhymes. Her poetry comes off exactly the way you'd expect it to, the poetry of an angsty overintellectual 17 year old white girl, and OH how they try not to laugh. Don't worry, Rose. We're not as good at internal rhyme schemes! We don't got the rhythm! Well, unless we're Marshall Mathers.
|What they don't realize, of course, is that Nick's a 17-year-old kid and Rose makes a super hot black chick, and if you send those two out alone Nick is going to try and impress her the way any guy tries to impress a hot babe.|
When Nick gets home with the watch, his parents lay into him with Renee's best performance to date. "What do you do that you need that thing for?" she asks. "You don't got a job, you don't go to school, where do you need to go with that thing?"
Downstairs, Carmen and Bruno exchange conspiratory looks, thrilled to be privvy to the conversation. "That's a great lesson," Bruno whispers. "And it's great to hear it in the black voice."
Brian takes Nick to return the watch, the next day, in their own skin. Apropos of nothing, Brian says to the woman behind the counter (and all us folks out here in TV Land): "There was no reason for him to spend $150 on something this gaudy. If he wants to —." Brian trails off, but we can hear what was on his lips. If we're spending $150 we're going to spend it on something classy. Not gangsta bling. We're not like that.
You said it, Brian.
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