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.