Not So Black and White

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I canít get the insipid theme song from Ice Cube's new reality show Black. White out of my head. Everywhere I go hear those boring drums, that plodding baseline, those keys jangling like giggling girls. But mostly, I hear Ice Cube — the once patron saint of young black rage — forcefully asserting the obvious ("Please donít believe the hype/Everything in the world ainít black and white") or simply declining to make sense ("If you a zebra better come out them stripes"). Ice Cube always had a gift for capturing a cultural moment, and his new jingle, and the show it pushes, does it again.

That moment, as it relates to our eternal racial debate, is stupidity.

Black.White., which ends with the last of six episodes Wednesday night, puts two families, one black and one white, in the same house. Then through the wonders of Hollywood make-up, the black family is made to look white and the white family is made to look black. With much aid from the press, Ice Cube, Black.White.'s producer, and R.J. Cutler, its executive producer and director, have pushed the show as a penetrating look at a race in America.

In fact Black.White. is a minstrel show that reveals nothing and diminishes everyone. The white father is so thick-headed that he thinks the only way to prove racism exists is for someone to come up and yell, ďHey, Nigger,Ē while heís in black make-up. The black father is so paranoid that he sees racism in every little twitch and movement made by whites. Characters attempt to get the black experience by playing dominos and doing spoken word, while their counterparts seek the white experience in knitting and charm school.

That sort of essentialism is in vogue in Hollywood. This yearís winner for Best Picture, Crash, was essentially a cluster of stock characters ambling on screen only to represent their respective ethnicities. The ambling always ended in racial slurs and suspicion. Like Black.White., nearly every action in the movie is explained by race. Carjacking? What else is a young black man to do? Suspicious of your Mexican locksmith? Well, what do you expect of upper-class white women? Racist cop feeling up your wife? Thatís what happens when your dad gets screwed by affirmative action.

Racially, this may be the most dynamic era in American history. Conflicting things seem to be true all once. Weíve had two black Secretaries of State, and yet the man they work for is generally hated by black America. Last year Los Angeles elected its first Latino mayor, and yet the immigration debate has dredged up old demons of nativism. The Arab world is moving toward democracy, and yet Arab men seem to have eclipsed black men as Public Enemy No. 1. Even the racial aspects of the Hurricane Katrina disaster are quite subtle. President Bush's performance was not so much racist as it was amazingly lame. Which isnít to say race wasnít a factor — itís easy to be tone-deaf toward people who donít vote for you.

That sort of complexity is hard to make into entertainment, mostly because the truth doesnít conform to bright lines.

Itís slowly creeping out that Black.White.ís handlers are undeterred by unpleasant facts. Responding to charges of creative manipulation in the Los Angeles Times, FX Networkís president, John Landgrad, said that reality shows are "at liberty to play it fast with characters and realties of what actually happened." A fair point, even if it's from the James Frey school of drama, but in fictionalizing, the show ignores much more compelling realities. I was amazed that Black.White. could be filmed in Los Angeles, where the population is 44% Latino and 48% white, and yet still proceed as though the ancient black/white dichotomy was still the dominant dynamic. But worse is the feeling, in watching both Crash and Black.White., that you could have made both of them 20 years ago and changed only a few lines.

Somewhere between Al Sharpton and David Horowitz, the racial debate (like much of the political debate) became spectacle. Black.White. revels in a racist fantasy, one that asserts that the only important thing to be said about oneís ethnicity are the problems it generates for others. Seemingly every little tick and personal eccentricity is blamed on the characters' race. To which I respond with Chris Rockís famous line: Whatever happened to crazy?