Imagining an American society in which the wealthy, privileged classes are predominantly black, and whites have exclusive domain over the lower strata, from the humblest workers down through homeless bums and street criminals, “White Man’s Burden” very cogently places the shoe on the other foot for audiences of both skin tones. The film’s shortcoming is that, once this challenging food for thought is on the table, debuting writer-director Desmond Nakano fails to make a substantial meal of it. Despite its intriguing, highly confrontational role-reversal premise, the compelling drama ultimately is rather too conventional, making it a difficult proposition commercially.
Undoubtedly, the marquee value of John Travolta’s name will help put such volatile material across to precisely those audiences that stand to squirm the most as their prejudices are brought to light. But while the actor delivers a taut, emotionally involving performance, his second role in a Lawrence Bender production fails to provide him with material to advance the career recharge kick-started by “Pulp Fiction.”
Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, a hard-working factory hand employed at a chocolate manufacturing plant owned by Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte). Assigned an errand to deliver documents to the owner, Pinnock takes a wrong turn around the gardens of the swanky residence. Disoriented, he momentarily glances at an upstairs window behind which the man’s wife, Megan (Margaret Avery), is dressing — a glance Thomas registers with obvious discomfort.
A request from the boss to send a different messenger next time sparks an overly conscientious reaction from the factory supervisor. When Pinnock makes a well-deserved bid for a soon-to-be vacant foreman’s job, he finds himself accused of being a peeping Tom and fired instead. His subsequent attempts to get to Thomas and plead his case are unsuccessful.
Having slipped into a spiral of bad luck, Pinnock makes frequent trips to the employment office that yield nothing. He takes a beating from cops looking for a suspect who fits his description, and comes home to an eviction notice for unpaid rent. Humiliated and turfed out by the landlord and two lawmen, his wife (Kelly Lynch) and two young kids go to stay with her unsympathetic mother (Carrie Snodgress), who excludes him from the invitation, forcing him to shack up in a derelict building.
Robbed of his livelihood, home and family, Pinnock is driven to drastic measures. He hijacks Thomas at gunpoint, demanding the money he feels is due him for his years of undeclared overtime. The fact that the tycoon has no recollection of who he is somewhat throws Pinnock. They get to a drive-through bank just as it’s closing for the weekend, leaving Pinnock little choice but to keep the man prisoner until Monday, when he can get the cash he needs.
The changes undergone by the two men during their enforced association of not much more than 24 hours provide interesting human drama, impressively played by the two actors. Both characters are basically honest, rational men. Pinnock may be hotheaded and undereducated, but he immediately becomes aware that Thomas is not merely the unscrupulous exploiter he assumed he was. A civilized man despite a vague conviction that society’s white trash may be beyond help, Thomas is more unaware of than indifferent to the hardships of those beneath his class.
As the unlikely pair get to know each other better, the film’s tone often digresses pleasurably into something more gentle and amusing, especially in an afternoon spent accompanying Pinnock’s son to buy a birthday gift. Thomas, who remains calm throughout the ordeal, subject more to physical stress than to actual fear, is struck by his captor’s devotion to his family, and Pinnock begins to believe the man may truly wish to help him. But a binding affinity between them arrives too late to avoid tragedy.
While the drama functions more than adequately, and its moral messages are effectively conveyed, the obstacle keeping the film from working on more complex levels is its relatively low reach. Once the audience cottons to the about-face in traditional black-white screen roles — which happens in the opening 10 minutes — the film has no-where to go but up a familiar narrative street.
This leaves little to distinguish the material, aside from its series of wry digs at racial prejudice and the imbalance between representations of different skin colors in American pop culture. This is evident when Pinnock’s son channel-surfs through a multitude of shows, all with black protagonists, or when he chooses a black superhero model, rejecting the white one as cheap and inferior.
Megan’s surprise when her son brings a WASP girl on a date, and the patronizing smiles of well-heeled black socialites at a fund-raising event for underprivileged white urchins, make effective points, as does the exclusivity of the story’s authority positions — from employment counselors to cops — to black characters. Perhaps the best switch is pulled in a funny scene in which a white bank clerk with attitude refuses to comply with Thomas’ haughty demands.
Belafonte’s presence in a major feature after keeping a low profile for so many years is a welcome return, and the actor brings enormous sympathy to a role that frequently flirts with coldly distanced arrogance. Travolta also deftly keeps the audience on his side without letting his luckless, frustratingly inarticulate character become pathetic. But the feeling remains that both talented actors have been denied the chance to take their roles in more interesting directions. In underwritten parts, Lynch and Avery have little to do.
Technically, the film is on the functional side. Nakano, who graduated to the director’s chair after scripting “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “American Me,” has been unable to bring any real edge to the drama, and his lack of a strong visual sense keeps it largely within the realm of a performance piece.
Pic was world premiered as a surprise entry at the San Sebastian