From The Defiant Ones to The Thing With Two Heads to 48 HRS. to the Lethal Weapon movies, putting a black man and a white man in uncomfortable proximity to each other has been a race card Hollywood loves to play. Two new video releases, White Man’s Burden and Money Train, bring starkly different attitudes to their respective interracial team-ups: The former beats its breast furiously, while the latter’s breeziness stops just short of cavalier. But overt perspectives and relative entertainment value aside, both movies reveal traces of white Hollywood’s self-congratulatory streak where race and racism are concerned.
Clumsily written and directed by Desmond Nakano (who, for the record, is neither white nor black, but Japanese-American), White Man’s Burden starts sinking as soon as it introduces its premise with a too-heavy hand. In a what-if world in which black and white roles have been reversed, Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte) is a rich and basically decent manufacturer who is just as basically bigoted, while Louis Pinnock (John Travolta) is a poor factory worker who’s fired from his job at Thomas’ plant after he accidentally glimpses the boss’ wife undressing. His life shattered, Pinnock kidnaps Thomas and takes him on a hell ride through the white ghetto he calls home. The rest of this odd drama is drearily inevitable. Just as in The Defiant Ones, the pair develop a kinship despite their differences, and Belafonte’s awakening to his shared humanity with Travolta plays like something out of an R-rated After School Special.
This parable’s most egregious sin is its assumption that if blacks were on top in America, they’d treat white people just as badly as they have been treated by whites. While ostensibly condemning prejudice, the film lets real racists off the hook by implying that bigotry is part of the human condition, rather than confronting the historical realities behind racism in America. And Travolta’s performance, although impassioned, is often unsettling when the actor starts taking the movie’s premise too literally; with the manner in which he silences his child by telling him to ”hush,” he comes dangerously close to minstrelsy. John Travolta’s ability to push Harry Belafonte around provides discomforting evidence of the fact that when Hollywood plays the race card, it stacks the deck. D