Ignorant, clueless, close-minded people plus manipulated footage does not a good documentary series make.
The premise of this show is simple: Take two families, a white one from Santa Monica, Calif., and a black one from Atlanta, Georgia, and have them live together in a house.
As I wrote last week, this six-part series Black.White, could provide an important step toward better understanding between the races. But in order to learn, the members of the white and black families need to be open-minded, ready to listen to thoughts they may not like, be patient, and be honest. However, I am increasingly convinced the white adults in the series don’t have what it takes for this experiment to be more than a variation of MTV’s The Real World, or other reality shows. While the white couple says they want to learn what it is like to be black, they instead appear more interested in talking than listening.
FX has been billing this as “a documentary series”, but R.J. Culter, a documentary filmmaker, and the man who developed the show, and rapper Ice Cube, who is an executive producer, have distanced themselves from that label, according to a Los Angeles Times article. The article also includes interviews with owners of businesses in Los Angeles visited during the making of the series. The interviewees say the show seems more interested in finding and exploiting conflict than on reporting what they actually found.
That must have been the case when the black mother visited Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar and Grill and talks to people who do not make racist statements. Those encounters are not included, while the one person with racist comments is.
The series also shows the black father, Brian, interviewing for a job. Viewers are not told that a job for him had already been secured, prior to the interview. This selective editing, which leaves important contextual details out of the final product, reminds me of Michael Moore, who has been accused of the same tricky moves in his own documentaries in order to better make a point.
The white mother, Carmen, says she is upset with how the footage was spliced, saying it is not accurately showing what happened. In her case, I wonder if she’s just trying to save face.
After the first episode, I had expressed concern that Bruno, the white father, was acting like a clueless know-it-all who seemed surprised that Brian was upset when Bruno used the n-word. In this episode, Carmen was doing stupid, ignorant things. When called on it, she pleaded ignorance. I think it was more a matter of her being clueless and insensitive. I have not decided which is worse – being ignorant or being clueless.
A perfect example: the two mothers were working with a dialect coach who was telling them how to speak white or black so they can better pass as an alternate race. Then, seemingly out of left field, Carmen says, “Yo, bitch!”
The black woman, Renee, looks at her, clearly offended.
“I really thought that was an affectionate term among black women,” Carmen said. Yes, that was really her defense. Renee responds that Carmen is not so stupid that she would think it was an acceptable comment to make.
The exchange is referred to several more times during the hour-long show and gradually becomes known as “the bitch incident.” At one point, Bruno suggests that Renee is “fixated” on the insult.
The one bright spot for the white family — the one member who seems to be an active listener and learn from this experience — is the daughter, Rose. She is part of an all-black poetry class. She participated in at least one class while in blackface. She also made such a pitiful attempt at rapping that it made me miss Vanilla Ice, who seemed brilliant in comparison.
Rose agonizes and cries over feeling awful that she is pretending to be black and decides to break the news to the group. They are understandably surprised and disturbed but more subdued in their reaction than I anticipated. Rose invites the group over to the house so they can see what she really looks like. Why they had to go to her house to see this remains unexplained. Either way, it’s a big mistake because if they go to her house they’ll meet Bruno and Carmen.
The poets share some of their material and it was wonderful. There are some talented writers among the bunch. Then Carmen ruins the moment. She starts by thanking them for sharing their poetry and telling them they are amazing artists. She says it in a way that suggests the poets were hoping for her approval and should now be pleased that the white woman has said they are good folks.
Carmen then babbles a bit before making a comment where it sounds like she is objectifying the members, referring to a “powerful black male physique.” She also mentions that she has not determined yet whether one young man is gay or straight, as if it is any of her business, let alone appropriate to say in front of the group. When she is done, the poets split. Can you blame them?
Renee later sums up her reaction to Carmen’s speech at the poetry incident: “I was so embarrassed and angry at the same time. There she goes again.” And Renee is right.
Instead of listening, Carmen keeps talking. Instead of learning, she continues to display her ignorance. Carmen seems aware of the problem but acts powerless to change it.
“They already knew that whites were insensitive and ignorant,” Carmen says to Bruno, Renee and the rest of the two families, “and you are coming here to prove that we say stupid things… Sure, I have fulfilled that for you.”
Rose sums up the situation well, pointing out how the two families interpreted events and remarks in such different ways.
“This is a very, very accurate microcosm of what can happen,” Rose said.
Bruno amends the remark: “What does happen, every day, all over the world.”
So let’s change it; let’s break the pattern.
If the Brunos and Carmens of the world can listen and stop making bad assumptions – be it use of the n-word or the b-word or whatever – maybe they can start learning. At this point, the family does not seem to be learning anything except that they are good at showing they know how to make jackasses of themselves on television. And, I have no sympathy for them. They have a chance to learn some valuable lessons and, so far, are blowing it.
Hopefully, next week’s episode will show them being more thoughtful and considerate. Somehow, I doubt it.