"The Bell Curve" in reverse? That is the perception given in the opening scene of "White Man’s Burden." As the film opens, a large group of successful Black business people exchange ideas and stories over cocktails at the home of wealthy executive Thad Thomas. Mr. Thomas then begins to boast about the way he has exploited white families due to their "genetic inferiority." This sets the stage for an unusual, yet thought provoking parable about the state of race relations in the country today.
As our textbook points out, the tension between Black America and White America can be traced back to the very beginning of our country. Almost all Black citizens currently living in the United States are descended from ancestors who were brought to our shores as slaves. Even the original draft of our Constitution only considered Blacks to be "One third human." In the view of many, sad to say, this notion still exists. It is reflected in the substandard housing, education, and job market that many African American citizens deal with on a daily basis.
The movie presents an interesting paradox: Louis Pinnock, a working class White man raising his family in a very rough neighborhood, finds himself oppressed by a Black power elite, epitomized by Thomas, who owns the parent company where Louis is employed. In the world portrayed in the film, race roles are reversed, where African Americans are the racial majority, and Whites are the minority.
Louis has a loving family, consisting of his wife, Marsha, and his young son Donnie. He is a dedicated, hard working man who is well acquainted with the dreams of a better life for his family, and the frustrations he faces on the long road to getting them there. Like some 30 million other Americans, they are part of the "working poor." They are not in this situation because they are lazy or trying to "cheat the system." Although the root cause of their financial plight is not clear, one would assume that Louis is a victim of a "system" which, due largely to his race, keeps him working menial labor jobs, with little opportunity for advancement. Sadly, this scene is all too real in America today.
As the story unfolds, Louis volunteers to deliver a package to Mr. Thomas. While he is at Thomas’ estate, he looks into a window, and sees Mr. Thomas’ wife in a rather "risqué" moment. This results in Louis losing his job. To make things worse, he is unable to find steady employment elsewhere, and winds up losing his home and family. In the process, he sees himself more and more ostracized because of his race. He is a White outcast living in a Black person’s world. No where is this seen more vividly than the scene in which he becomes the victim of racial profiling by two African American policemen.
In a desperate attempt to get his original job back, or at least, to be compensated for his lost wages, Louis kidnaps Thomas. Through a wild series of miscues, twists, and turns, they begin talking, and actually start to see into each others’ hearts. They begin talking about their families, with Thomas even showing Louis pictures of his children. However, deep down, the mistrust and resentment still remain. Louis eventually concludes that since Thomas knows who he is, and thus, can identify him to the police, he will need to kill him. Thomas manages to briefly escape, but Louis still catches up with him, brutally beats him up, and hides him at his friend Stanley’s place. In spite of this, Louis’ humanity returns when Thad shows signs of having a heart attack. Since they are in a rough neighborhood, no ambulance will come, so Louis attempts to take Thomas to the hospital in his truck, which unfortunately breaks down en route. Desperately grasping for any means he can find to get help, Louis starts firing his gun at windows and empty cars in order to attract police. This leads to the film’s chilling climax, in which the police, in another case of racial stereotyping, see the gun in Louis’ hand, and shoot him dead.
Who is Louis Pinnock in today’s society? Is he a criminal, a martyr, or simply a statistic? The role is played well by John Travolta (in spite of his annoying attempt at a ghetto accent.) Although at first, he comes across as being crude and uneducated, it later becomes clear that Louis is a complex character who deals with a wide range of emotional and social contradictions. He is driven by both his love for his family, and later, by his hatred for the establishment. As is most often the case, the establishment wins.
At the same time, Harry Bellafonte’s Thad Thomas character is equally effective. He is a prime example of the "bourgeoisie," both racially and financially. He lives in his ivory tower, totally oblivious to the workers who are largely responsible for his success. I found it interesting that in spite of his boasting about how he has taken advantage of the "inferior" white people, he changes his tune later in the movie. While Louis has him at gunpoint, he proclaims that he "Has too much respect for himself, and for others to ever be a criminal."
What would happen if the race roles in the movie were reversed? To be honest, I have thought and re-thought about this a number of times since seeing the movie. In spite of the obvious racist overtones to Mr. Thomas’ character, there is no evidence that his initial complaints to Louis’ boss were racially motivated. If I caught someone peeking through a window at my wife, regardless of their skin color, I wouldn’t be happy about it, either. Even when Louis is fired (whether justifiably or not,) his firing seems to be motivated, not so much by race, as by the supervisor’s desire to stay in good standing with "the big man." Given the seriousness of the accusation, I can understand why his supervisor would take action against this sort of conduct, although firing him without due process is obviously unfair. In my opinion, the movie fails in areas like these. Lewd conduct, whether real or perceived, is not a race issue, it is a right vs. wrong issue.
That being said, however, the movie does contain many positive qualities. Much of this film’s wisdom lies in drawing the viewer outside of his/her "bubble" and placing them, not so much in the individual victim’s shoes, but in the shoes of those who would identify with the victim. For example: How did it feel to watch a White man getting roughed up by Black policemen? In addition, the film does a good job at examining class prejudices, which are just as real as racial prejudices. One of Thad Thomas’ key weaknesses is his tendency to "detach" himself from those outside his social sphere (i.e., when Louis comes to his house to ask for help in getting his job back, to which Thomas replies, "I don’t get involved in those kind of things.") However, Louis also falls into the same trap, albeit from a different angle. Fueled by class envy and rage. His prejudice is just as real as that of Thomas, which is illustrated by his discomfort over buying his son a Black action figure for his birthday. In spite of the obvious tension on both sides, however, the humanity of both characters is clearly seen. To a degree, both Louis and Mr. Thomas are villains and victims at the same time.
In my opinion, another of the movie’s weaknesses was that it seemed more concerned with cursing the darkness than with lighting a candle. Sure, we must identify the problem, but even that is pointless if there are no attempts to work at a solution. The movie would have benefited greatly by having someone, either Black or White, who could be a "healer" character, and in some way, even with the film’s violent ending, inject an element of hope that things don’t have to be this way.
Yet when the movie is over, and we return to the real world, we see that these "healer characters" are even more scarce in real life than they are in the movie. Could this be the reason that the filmmaker left such a character out of the movie? Is it possible for us to project ourselves into the story as this nonexistent character?
As we examine ourselves in this way, it is important to look around us, and appreciate the work that is already being done by real life healers. For all of the problems that still exist, there are many rays of light to help illumine the journey to overcome them.
I see visible reminders of this on a regular basis. For example, I attend an inner-racial church, and week after week, I see the Black families and the White families worshipping and serving side by side. I have come to have a deep appreciation for how much of a miracle this is. No one can ever tell me that it can’t happen, because I have seen and experienced it firsthand. What was once called "the most segregated hour in America" is fast becoming a primary catalyst for deep racial healing.
This is where it has to begin. Although government and other channels can and should help as best they can, change from the outside will always be a band-aid approach at best. True change must come from the heart. We get a peek of this at the movie’s end, when Thad approaches Marsha and offers her financial assistance, which she refuses. He has experienced, at least to a degree, the need to get past the hurt and try to right his past wrongs. However, such overtures are often seen as too little, too late, as expressed in Marsha’s heartbreaking statement "...and how much do you think is enough?" Our society, especially those who are victims of these sort of atrocities, could very well ask the same question:
"...and how much do we think is enough?"