White Man’s Burden is the sort of picture you would have expected John Travolta to star in before his comeback (in fact, producer Lawrence Bender pressed him into doing it before Pulp Fiction had become a certified hit). The film is based on a gimmick — what if the roles of blacks nd whites in American society were reversed? — that has usually worked best in science fiction or satire. The clumsily didactic White Man’s Burden spins it into earnest melodrama. Travolta plays a racially disenfranchised factory worker who loses his job after he offends the company’s owner (Harry Belafonte). Having learned that the system is against him, he kidnaps the owner, and the two men spend the rest of the picture discovering — you guessed it — that they’re not so different under the skin.
Forty years ago, this setup might have had some resonance. For most of White Man’s Burden, though, we simply seem to be watching the story of a disgruntled Caucasian blue-collar worker and a prosperous African-American executive. Since both types are, by now, unremarkable in our culture, the film achieves almost none of the mind-opening zap it’s trying for. Writer-director Desmond Nakano does little besides flip-flop clichés. Young black hoodlums blasting rap are replaced by young white hoodlums blasting punk, and the oppressive tactics of grim-faced black police officers are paraded before us like something out of a sensitivity-awareness training film designed for the LAPD. It doesn’t help that Belafonte inhabits his role with decency and charm: How can we experience racism in a new way if the lead oppressor is a nice guy? Travolta brings his own decency to the role, but it’s a bit disquieting to watch him play a shabby-lumpen schmo with badly cut reddish-brown hair. There are some actors you don’t want to see robbed of their sleekness. C-