The premise of this show is simple: Take two families, a white one from Santa Monica, California, and a black one from Atlanta, Georgia, and have them live together in a house in L.A. The white family, who at times puts on make-up to look black, are: Bruno, the father; Carmen, the mother; and Rose, the daughter. The black family, who at times puts on make-up to look white, are: Brian, the father; Renee, the mother; and Nick, the son. I have been using the series to explore issues and thoughts regarding race relations.
This show went downhill fast. I am very disappointed. When I look back at my early reviews of the show, in which I spoke of hope the series would aid in progress of race relations, I just have to sigh. The show failed the world. This show helped the world about as much as an episode of Cops.
My confusion and naiveté stem from the billing of this show as a documentary series. The executive producer made The War Room, which was a good thought-provoking documentary.
But this series was more a reality show than a documentary. One of the early complaints I wrote about, the manipulation of footage, provided good clues that this show was more interested in controversy than in actually helping us understand other races.
Jesse Jackson may have said, “Keep hope alive!” but I was about ready to quit watching this show by episode three. The fourth episode, though, was a vast improvement. The best part of episode four involved Bruno and Nick, whose own families said they were ignorant about racism, as I wrote about in a prior Blogcritics’ review.
Unfortunately, the fifth and sixth episodes were also quite bad. By the end of the show Nick had learned why it is unacceptable to let white people use the “N” word around him.
Throughout my reviews I have speculated that Bruno was a fitting representative of white male Americans. Bruno is the type of guy who says he is tired of blacks complaining about what he terms “that whole slavery thing.” Bruno expresses frustration — sounding at times almost like jealousy — that blacks can use the “N” word but whites can’t. Carmen, though, got it. “We don’t have the right to use that word and they do,” Carmen said. My prediction for this series was this: If Bruno leaves the show having learned something valuable, then this series will have been an asset to racial tolerance.
But in order to learn, Bruno has to listen. And he repeatedly demonstrated he was more interested in talking and spouting off about his generalizations about blacks, rappers, and other things than in actually learning from the experience. Bruno, put simply, spent much of the series talking out of his ass. He might as well have stuck his head in it for all he learned.
The series can be divided into two sections: one in which the members of the two families interact with strangers and the other when the family members interact with each other. The former seemed more promising than the latter but both did not really work.
Playing With Strangers
The show kept taking decent concepts, in which the participants could learn from others, and then messing with them. For example, while in blackface, Rose was learning from the members about their experiences, the obstacles they face, and what they really think. But once she decides – or the show’s executives decided for this girl – that she should tell them she is really white, then the entire situation shifts. Once she reveals her true color, her poems and other comments invariably become attempts to bridge the racial divide; they come out sounding more like sermons and lectures than poems.
For the final episode, they each are to give a live performance of a single poem they wrote. When Rose practiced hers, though, it sucked. It sounds more, as another poet put it, like a paper on an assigned topic. Another poet tells her to just “throw it away.” She writes something new and delivers it live but it, too, is meaningless tripe about how difficult it is to be her, a white girl struggling to understand the world.
In reviews and comments I have read, some ask why it is only the white family who needs to learn. That’s a fair question. But the main lesson the black family learns repeatedly, while in white makeup, is that people may act different if they do not know their real race.
On this final episode, for example, Brian and Renee go to a bar in white face and Brian is amazed that a white woman leaves her wallet on the bar while she goes to the bathroom. Brian asks the woman about this and she says she left her purse there because she trusts people. He asks her if she would do it again knowing he noticed it and she said yes. Away from her, Brian and Renee say that would not happen if she knew they were black or if there were other blacks on the premises.
Interesting? Yes. Anecdotal? Oh, yeah. And that’s a big problem with the show – it is filled with anecdote after anecdote that, even when grouped together, don’t really prove anything.
More effective is when Nick meets – at his mom’s insistence – an ex-gang member who takes him around his old neighborhood and tells about friends who have died because of his old life. Nick seems moved. Maybe Nick is finally scared straight. Let’s just hope they don’t try to use that storyline for a spin-off.
It quickly became apparent that the two families were not going to get along. This was the more contrived part of the show that reminded me of the Real World recipe for a television show – put people of conflicting ideologies together and then watch the fireworks.
The most memorable of those scenes came when Carmen called Renee a bitch and then spent the next few episodes trying to say she did not mean it in an offensive way.
I did not hold out much hope that the families would learn from each other but just how dysfunctional the relationship was became apparent during the final 20 minutes. The family members said they decided – though my guess is, it was not really their idea – to write letters to each other and then read them aloud. My heart dropped because I knew what would happen – they would use the opportunity to make some final pot shots at each other. And so they did.
Bruno’s letter criticized Brian, Renee, and Nick. His sharpest barb was at Renee: “For Renee I wish a greater capacity for understanding on a deeper level, a reality free of rigidity, narrow-mindedness, and petty self-righteousness.”
Brian shot back, reading from his letter: “I really do not feel I have learned anything from anybody in the house but I have learned things about them. Like Bruno, no matter what color he is, he will only see things his way.”
Brian said Carmen is too sensitive too learn and Rose’s judgments are clouded by her emotions. Renee said the only person she learned from was Rose. Renee said she got the sense that Bruno and Carmen really did not want to get to know her.
Rose took the high road: “I do not think we will ever really be done but, hey, at least we can say we have begun a life-long journey.” She later reflected: “It was not all nice things said, but it was real.”
As if the show could not be more contrived, the next scene shows the two families meeting with a therapist. This just starts another argument as Bruno says he can’t believe Brian said he learned nothing from the experiment. The therapist asks Brian if he is willing to keep trying to get Bruno to see the light.
”As much as I would love to give up on Bruno in this project, I can’t,” Brian replies.
Overall, this show was very disappointing but there were a few times when I got excited. With this statement from Rose, for example, it sounds like they have the right idea:
Until you open your mind and your ears to other peoples’ words and experiences you can’t make a difference. If you got it in you to accept and forgive and move and learn, beautiful — you are changing the world.
If only the rest of the families had put that idea into practice during the series.