Trading Places

White Man's Burden

area theaters

Father of the Bride Part II

area theaters, starts Friday

REMEMBER THE FIRST part of Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which a xenophobe (Vic Morrow) awakens to discover that he's being chased by the KKK? White Man's Burden likewise concocts a world of radically altered race roles: White people like Louis Pinnock (John Travolta) live in a center-city hellhole where they're surrounded by crime and terrorized by black racist cops; African-Americans like Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte) are bourgeois power players ensconced in Beverly Hills-style mansions. This isn't exactly a revenge tract or a work of science fiction. It's the incendiary gimmick of a studio executive hoping to create a box-office riot--and, meanwhile, educate the masses. Uh-huh. But if the movie's reversal of fortune were complete, wouldn't Harry Belafonte be getting top billing?

Maybe, if this weren't the story of a white man's burden. A victim of racism, Travolta's blue-collar Louis loses his job in a chocolate factory after he's thought to have been peeping on the black bossman's naked wife. Later, after being mistaken for a bankrobber (those white people all look alike), he gets brutally billyclubbed by some black cops. Thus doubly beaten down, Louis opts to carjack and kidnap Thaddeus (Belafonte), the chocolate plant boss whom he believes was responsible for the firing. "How does it feel?" Louis asks Thaddeus at gunpoint. "Me havin' power over you like you had over me?" Like he's just crossed over into the Twilight Zone, probably. For Louis (and the audience?), it feels as though race prejudice hurts real bad, particularly if you're on the receiving end of it. No duh. With Travolta as the minimum-wage heavy, this film could easily be read as a portrait of how the perceived increase in black people's power has turned whites into an endangered species. (Is it just a coincidence that a new Planet of the Apes movie is being developed as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger?)

As in sci-fi, White Man's Burden is obsessed with the details of its cultural switcheroo: Everything signifies. Louis's bitchy, unsupportive wife (Kelly Lynch) is bitter that he can't support her and their son. So is she meant to personify poor black women? The film paints itself into a corner. If Thaddeus appears to show sympathy for his kidnapper/oppressor, does that mean rich white racists are basically kindhearted? What if he snaps Louis's neck in an attempt to escape? Without giving it away, the disingenuously cautious ending reveals a black actor whose character's attempt at racial reconciliation is rejected (justifiably, we're meant to think), while the similar effort of a white marquee star's character results in tragic martyrdom. This is apparently what one critic was thinking of when he opined that Travolta "seems to absorb all the confusion, brutalization and cosmic rage of black America." Yeah, and without face paint, too!

I can't imagine what African-American viewers will make of this bizarre attempt to legitimize their oppression; I'd guess they would feel they've seen it before, either in their own lives or through the eyes of actors with the same color skin as theirs. But what are the film's presumed beneficiaries--the white multiplex crowd--supposed to derive from this downbeat primer on race politics? After a weekend-night showing at a suburban theater, I overheard some illuminating conversations. Preppy-looking young guy, incredulously: "I thought it would be different, but I didn't know it would be that different." Middle-aged white guy in a cheap suit, sounding pissed: "I have reality shoved up my ass five days a week--I don't need to pay $6.75 to have it pushed up there further." Well-dressed, 30s-ish white woman, regretfully: "I prefer happy endings."

Father of the Bride Part II is driven by a similarly skin-crawling role-reversal, though it's more subtly deployed. Steve Martin plays George Banks, a wealthy but penny-pinching guy whose wife (Diane Keaton) and daughter (Kimberly Williams) are both pregnant at the same time. Imagine the man's trauma: He can't believe that the fetus in his wife's belly is half his (he calls Mrs. Banks "a two-timing Mata Hari"), and he still can't bear the thought that someone else's hands have been all over his little girl. Adding to George's semi-conscious anxiety, Part II brings back the first film's pair of gasping, lisping, limp-wristed "wedding coordinators" (Martin Short, B.D. Wong), who are again bent on blowing Father's precious wad (this time for the baby's room). As the due dates approach, the wife starts glowing and chopping vegetables; the daughter experiences several false alarms. Meanwhile, George, on the way to discovering life's little dividends, is so bursting with angst that he has to take two tranquilizers; the pain and sacrifice of childbirth belongs entirely to him. You might say this is the White Man's Burden of pregnancy movies.

 
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