Black. White.

Documentarian R.J. Cutler and rapper Ice Cube dig into America's touchiest subject, race, by having two families walk in each other's shoes in the relatively racially calm climes of Los Angeles' suburbs. The reality series is consistently compelling, but how much of that is generated in controlled situations remains a mystery.

Documentarian R.J. Cutler (“War Room”) and rapper Ice Cube dig into America’s touchiest subject, race, by having two families walk in each other’s shoes in the relatively racially calm climes of Los Angeles’ suburbs. In “Black. White.,” a black family from Atlanta, the Sparks, maneuver in white skin; a a Caucasian trio from Santa Monica put on makeup and try to act black, and the two families share a house in Tarzana. The tension comes from their encounters with the outside world and with each other. The reality series, loaded with conflict and stubbornness among the participants, is consistently compelling, but how much of that is generated in controlled situations remains a mystery.

The first four episodes of the six-part series reveal entrenched attitudes and naivete (some of which is the result of these folks being put in contrived situations). The men, especially, enter with firm expectations: The white guy thinks he will be referred to by the n-word and the black father sees racial mistrust in every person’s actions.

The white family of Carmen Wurgel, her daughter Rose and Carmen’s boyfriend Bruno, who is misleadingly presented as husband and father, wear some mighty thick rose-colored glasses through this experiment. Bruno swears racism is a thing of the past; Carmen has seemingly not driven east of La Cienega in decades; and daughter Rose, a few months shy of 18, seems to be the most open-minded person in the group.

The Sparks family includes dad Brian, his often-incensed wife Renee and ne’er-do-well son Nick, who makes a point about the attitude of many youths — they just see people, not black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc. That p.o.v., however, gets Brian worked up to the point that he exclaims, “I shouldn’t have spent so much time trying to teach (the Wurgels) about racism. I should have been teaching my own son.”

Even though there are illuminating revelations here and there, the series forces much of the action. Nick heads to an etiquette class, allegedly so he can fit in the white world. To learn about black youths’ artistry, Rose goes to a poetry slam class and is overwhelmed. (It generates the series’ most honest reactions, but it’s a set-up that the producers don’t expose: They created an all-black class for her to attend, and the class organizers were in on the ruse.)

Brian gets a job as a white bartender in an all-white enclave and gets plenty of chances to read racism in comments of his patrons; the Wurgels, as a black couple, go into a country bar with a Confederate flag on the wall and, natch, don’t feel welcome.

Carmen is surprised by everything, especially the responses from Renee, who is easily offended by Carmen’s remarks. Renee, however, is rarely seen in her Caucasian get-up, and in the first four episodes is never in a black-white faceoff in her painted-on skin.

Without her black makeup, Carmen, in the fourth episode, discovers how complicated this whole issue is: She experiences fear in a black neighborhood, and at home, attempts to express gratitude to a group of teens. Yet, later, she receives a considerable amount of grief for her reactions. It drives home the difficulty of finding a level playing field in which both sides understand where the other is coming from.

The series comes to few conclusions, but indicates that fortysomethings might never agree on racial issues, and younger generations will pretty much have to ignore their parents’ prejudices if they want to shed racist skin. Yet there’s a taint over this project, which is presented as a breakthrough documentary rather than another trumped-up reality series; whatever answers may have come from the series are now clouded by a question of authenticity.

Film is remarkably crisp, and the outsiders who interact with the participants never appear too concerned about the presence of cameras. Sound, too, is remarkably clear. Both of which have to make one wonder how honest are all of these takes and how many are played up for the chance to be on TV.

Black. White.

FX, Wed. March 8, 10 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Southern California by FX Networks, Actual Reality Pictures and Cube-Vision. Executive producers, R.J. Cutler, Ice Cube, Matt Alvarez; co-executive producers, Fernando Mills, Jude Weng, Keith Hoffman; senior producer, Michael Bernstein; supervising producer, Donny Jackson; producers, Alexandra Reed, Keith Vanderlaan;

Crew: camera, Derth Adams, Andrei Cranach, Todd Dos Reis, John Tarver; editors, Andy Robertson, Poppy Das, Greg Finton, Yaffa Lerea, Maris Berzins; music, JECO Music. 60 MIN.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. Universal outbid five other studios for [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

  • Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The

    Andrew Lincoln's ‘Walking Dead’ Movies to Be Released Only in Theaters

    The first planned movie centered on “The Walking Dead” character Rick Grimes will now run in theaters rather than on AMC. The announcement was made with a brief teaser video played at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, with the video ending with the words “Only in Theaters.” The film will be distributed by Universal Pictures. [...]

  • Jennifer Beals The Last Tycoon

    Jennifer Beals Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat as Matthew Modine Ally (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Beals is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Beals is best known for starring as Bette Porter on the Showtime series “The L Word” and for her lead role as Alex Owens in the 1983 hit “Flashdance.” She’s starred in the [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse Opens New Downtown Los

    Alamo Drafthouse Storms into L.A. with New Location

    “Cinema is alive and well tonight!” Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League declared at the theatrical venue’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday night, where a gathering of 160 employees cheered and sliced into a strip of 35mm film in keeping with the company’s tradition. Despite dire predictions heralding the end of the theater-going experience, League was upbeat [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content