“White Man’s Burden,” the directorial debut of actor Gregory Hines, is a serious-minded tale of interracial relationships that marks a promising but flawed filmmaking debut. A downbeat, literal script makes this polished indie effort a limited audience proposition. It should score some theatrical heat based on content but will likely find its biggest response in ancillaries.
The story centers on Lonny (Mark Evan Jacobs), a paralegal with ambitions to flail against the system in the searing novel he’s been unable to begin. His inability to break through has left him emotionally hollow. Additionally, his work challenges are predictable, his relationship with his girlfriend empty and the fractious encounters with his liberal, work-ethic father tedious.
He’s looking for an opportunity and seizes the wrong one. By chance he encounters Denise (Karen Kirkland), a bright, black teenager preparing for scholastic tests. He’s taken with her voracity to learn and initially extends his hand in friendship as a tutor. Though he denies it, the relationship is more than that of teacher to student. He’s attracted to her and she’s overwhelmed by the interest and proximity of a mature man.
Though the scenario is common enough, the racial component takes it another step. More than age is a factor here, although that facet of the situation allows many of the characters — especially those who profess progressive attitudes — to demonstrate a latent fear of sex between the races.
Hines and writer Allison Burnett don’t pull any punches in “White Man’s Burden.” With rare exception, the chorus around Lonny and Denise make it clear to each that the situation is doomed to sour. Passion and obstinacy prevail, however, and the consequences are to varying degrees fatal for the couple.
The arc of the tragedy is set early in the film and never waivers from its appointed trajectory. With no prospect of surprise, the narrative flow is increasingly sluggish: It becomes difficult to wade through the sadness when there’s no interest or outcome to root for.
The direction, on the plus side, is seamless, uncluttered and, to its disadvantage, unrelentingly earnest. Pic benefits from an undeniable veracity and strong performances from its leads and supporting players. Particularly chilling is Lorraine Toussaint as Denise’s mother.
But despite these bright spots, the mantle of this “Burden” is not easily worn.