White Man's Burden (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Black is white and white is black. It's a clever gimmick, but, ultimately, as depicted in White Man's Burden, that's all it is. Once the premise is set, writer/director Desmond Nakano doesn't know what to do with it. Added to that is the consideration that the basic story was developed in a screenplay written thirty years ago, when the entire concept would have seemed a lot more radical and original. Nowadays, seeing a prosperous black man isn't at all unusual. Likewise, it doesn't take much searching to uncover underprivileged whites.

In order to make it clear what's going on -- that the blacks are the "haves" and the whites are the "have nots" -- White Man's Burden falls into a pattern of gross stereotyping and oversimplification. Indeed, without painting characters and situations in the broadest possible manner, there wouldn't be a concrete way to recognize the role reversal. Yet it's this reliance upon archetypes and cliches that undercuts the film's message. Something a little more subtle is needed than a group of black cops beating a white man with night sticks.

The situation set forth in White Man's Burden naturally raises a lot of background questions, none of which are answered. Are whites a racial minority, or have they simply been reduced to the lowest rung on the economic ladder (a sort of South Africa in reverse)? Were whites once slaves and blacks plantation owners? What is the country's political structure like? What color is the indigenous population of Africa? When you enter the Twilight Zone of an alternate reality, these are the kinds of things people are interested in, yet this film sidesteps them all.

There isn't much of a story in White Man's Burden. John Travolta, virtually duplicating his Pulp Fiction personae, decides to kidnap black CEO Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte). Travolta's Louis Pinnock, who used to work for Thaddeus' candy-making company, was fired as a result of a mistake by his bosses. So, in order to pay the rent and keep his family together, Louis decides to take matters into his own hands by demanding his lost wages from the man at the top of the corporate heap.

The idea of a relationship developing between a kidnapper and his victim is nothing new, and not much of interest is added here. Ultimately, however, in White Man's Burden, the race reversal gimmick overshadows everything. The director is so busy pointing to skin color that he loses sight of the characters under the pigmentation. There's nothing compelling about either of the leads. They never connect with each other or the audience. Sure, there are some nice touches, like the scene where Louis teaches Thaddeus the best way to put salt on his French fries, but there aren't enough moments like that. It often seems that there's a good story trying to break free, but White Man's Burden is so loaded down by contrivances and the need to get its message across that it smothers creativity.

After playing three similar characters in a row (see Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty), Travolta can probably do this kind of role in his sleep. And, of everything the actor has accomplished since Quentin Tarantino brought him back into the spotlight, this is the least impressive of his performances. Harry Belafonte, who has been largely absent from the screen for the better part of two decades, has chosen an odd movie for a comeback attempt. He's okay here, but this isn't the kind of part that will earn him raves.

The plot of White Man's Burden is capable of holding an audience's attention for most of its running time. Based on the premise, however, viewers have a right to expect more than they get. Skin color swapping and facile assumptions about the relationship between race and economics are used more as cheap plot devices than as a basis for a probing examination of real issues. While it's the film makers' task to form something solid and meaningful out of their alternate reality, in this case, the burden appears to have been too great.

White Man's Burden (United States, 1995)

Director: Desmond Nakano
Cast: John Travolta, Harry Belafonte, Kelly Lynch, Margaret Avery, Sheryl Lee Ralph
Screenplay: Desmond Nakano
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: Savoy Pictures
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1