Off-color 

Are you as surprised as I am to see that Ice Cube is one of the prime movers behind the much-talked-about, race-baiting new series Black.White.?

Yep, that's his name in the executive producer credits, and his voice rapping the theme song, "Race Card." Mr. Straight-Outta-Compton, formerly of N.W.A. (which doesn't stand for Nice With Affection) himself. Then again, any former gangsta rapper who can foist such schlock as the feel-good kiddie flick Are We There Yet? on the public and walk away all the richer for it has already mastered the art of the sellout.

There's a certain cheesy, manufactured quality to this limited-run series, airing at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on F/X, which has already received an avalanche of media hype: Through the "magic" of Hollywood makeup artists, two families switch skin colors for six weeks to walk a mile in each other's races. There's a bit of clunky artificiality inherent in all reality TV shows, but at least most other series try to compensate with production value for what they lack in believability.

Because of the incendiary nature of the show's subject matter — you know there's nothing like a Hollywood dialogue on race relations in America to get the party started — the producers apparently have resigned themselves to let hype overshadow the need for substance. (Jimmy Kimmel, who had Mr. Cube on his late-night hour after the show's premiere, referred to Black.White. as "the hot new reality show" ... after one episode. The public has spoken!)

What's hot got to do with it? The problem I have with Black.White., besides the horrifically bad makeup jobs on the participants (Bruno Marcotulli, the hulking white husband-father, looks eerily like a blackface Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and no one possessing eyesight could possibly mistake Renee Sparks, the black wife-mother, for a Caucasian) is the superficiality of the experiment. It's as if the contentious issues pertaining to being black (or white, for that matter) in this country have been dumbed down for the sake of the people who need to understand them most.

Brooke Kroeger, an associate professor of journalism at New York University who wrote a provocative book in 2003 called Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are (PublicAffairs, $25), suggests that in cases where a person actually can "pass" for someone of another race, there are dimensions of conflict that go much further than skin deep.

"There's resentment toward the person who's able to do it from family and the community, by the people who don't have that option ever," says Kroeger. "But more significantly, there's just a real hostility to the idea of the betrayal of the community, the family, your nurturers, the betrayal of those to whom you owe the most. It was really pronounced in some groups."

Now that's a show I'd like to see. Of course, the narrowly confined structure of Black.White. mitigates against such "reality" television. Instead, what we get are sound bites that sear your sensibilities: the white father proclaiming — far too excitedly — that "I'm waiting for someone to come up to me and say, 'Hey, nigger'"; the white wife-mother, Carmen Wurgel, referring to a young African-American woman as a "beautiful black creature" and expressing genuine shock to learn that black females don't refer to each other as "bitches" as a term of endearment. ("Can anybody be that stupid?" Renee ponders.) Brian, the black husband-father, informing Bruno that "When I hear the 'n' word, my jaws clench up." This is a news flash?

Rose, the 18-year-old white daughter, appears to have the best chance for surviving this made-for-TV miasma intact. She seems to "get it," and is open-minded enough to accept and assimilate new experiences. However, a scene on last week's show, when she "came out" to her black slam poetry group and revealed her true identity, felt far too pat and contrived.

Certainly, this is not the first time "passing" for another race or culture has been the springboard for mass entertainment from the left coast. From Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement in 1947, with Gregory Peck posing as an undercover Jew, to James Whitmore's memorable performance in the 1964 film Black like Me, based on John Howard Griffin's book, to Eddie Murphy's adventures as a white man on Saturday Night Live, there has long been a strange fascination with watching people experience life on the other side.

More recently, Anthony Hopkins portrayed Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black college professor who had abandoned his ethnicity, in the poorly received 2000 movie The Human Stain (featuring young Wentworth Miller, now enjoying breakout status in the returning FOX series Prison Break). Dare we even mention the Wayans Brothers' White Chicks? And who could ever forget one of the best tearjerkers of all time, the 1959 film version of Fannie Hurst's novel Imitation of Life, where the housemaid's daughter turns to her mother and shrieks, "I'm white! white! white!"

That's what Ice Cube needs with Black.White: some N.W.A. In this case, that would mean Naysayers With Attitudes.

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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