Friday, July 19, 2013

Beast of Burden

I recently came across this oddity called White Man's Burden.  It is a 1995 movie written and directed by Desmond Nakano and starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.  The movie's simple and bizarre premise is that America is still America but black people are the ruling class and white people are the underclass.  Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, a simple but hardworking member of the oppressed white people.  He works in a candy factory run by a tidy and efficient black man named Lionel (Tom Wright) and is struggling to maintain his tenuous grip on the American Dream.  He has a blonde wife (Kelly Lynch) and two children, a six year-old boy and an infant daughter, but he just can't seem to grab hold of that next rung on the economic ladder.  Pinnock has his ear constantly cocked for opportunity to knock so he volunteers when a man is needed to deliver a package to the luxury estate of the factory owner.

From the moment he passes through the ornate gates of the Thomas estate what little luck Pinnock had dissipates like so much smoke up the alimentary canal.  On the palatial grounds, eager and immediately confused as to where to go, Pinnock peers into a window and accidentally sees the fetching Megan Thomas (Margaret Avery) coming out of the shower.  Mr. Thaddeus Thomas (as played by the then still robust septuagenarian Harry Belafonte) is not amused Pinnock has seen his much younger wife in a state of undress and orders Lionel to never send Pinnock to his house again.  Lionel, unaware of Pinnock's offense but charged by the heat of Thomas' request, makes sure Thomas will never see Pinnock again - by firing him.

Thus begins a rapid downward spiral for Pinnock.  After being rebuffed at the gate of the Thomas estate in a desperate attempt to straighten out whatever caused him to lose his job, Pinnock suffers one indignity after another.  He is beaten by the police in a case of mistaken identity when his truck, his only means of transportation, breaks down on the night on his firing.  He is already behind in his mortgage payments and is powerless to stop his family's humiliating eviction from their home.

Out of money, out of luck, and out of options, Pinnock undertakes one last desperate act.  He decides he is going to force Thomas to give him "what he is owed," at the barrel of a gun, if necessary.  Confronted at the gate of his estate, Thomas does not have enough cash on him to satisfy his "debt," so Pinnock forces Thomas drive his luxury sedan to the drive-through window at his bank.  The supercilious teller, a white man, refuses to service them because the bank is closing.  When Thomas, obviously a man of wealth and means, demands to see the teller's supervisor, the teller responds that he is in charge of his window and he will decide when it opens and closes.  The teller suggests they visit the ATM at the back of the bank.  When Thomas protests that he needs more money than that, the teller tells him to come back on Monday and closes his window.

At this point, Pinnock has a crisis and a dilemma.  He has kidnapped a prominent member of society and, if he wants to get what is "owed" him, he will have to keep him captive over the weekend.  Rather than aborting his mission and letting Thomas go, unharmed, Pinnock decides to double down on his stupidity.

White Man's Burden goes off the rails at many junctures, starting with the title.  In Rudyard Kipling's poem, the white man's burden is the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture to nonwhite people - at the point of a gun or bayonet, if necessary.  It is never clear what the white man's burden is in this movie.  His black oppressors?  There is no hint of brutal oppression by the black ruling class and race plays no role in Pinnock's firing.  A black delivery man caught in the same circumstances would have suffered the same fate.  Further, Pinnock is revealed as a totally unexceptional man, a man who because of his limited skill set and repeated poor choices would have lived a life of disquieting desperation even if he had been blessed with a darker hue.

Nakano, a writer-director of Japanese heritage who was born and raised in this country, seems to have a tin ear when it comes to American race relations.  In a movie made on the cheap, he fails to fill in necessary detail.  There are no billboards, advertising or commercials extolling the prevailing black hegemony.  We don't see black newscasters, actors, politicians or judges.  White people aren't cornrowing their hair or getting tans to fit in.  Pinnock is married to a pale, blond woman, which would put him on the lowest rung of this society but, as played by Kelly Lynch, his wife, Marsha, retains all the snap and vinegar of someone who has been raised with a sense of white privilege.  She is not downtrodden; she is defiant and full of the notion of who she is - despite her circumstances.  While her family is being evicted, she flouts the orders of armed men and boldly dictates the terms of her surrender.

There is also some ridiculousness of Thomas' son (Bumper Robinson) bringing a white date to a family function.  This is so howlingly out of left field  and there is no context or justification for this interaction in this movie.  To hammer home the point, his date should have been the darkest woman the filmmakers could have found.  Also, there is some business with white skinheads being the equivalent of black street gangs.  Without the notion of white supremacy, white skinheads do not exist.

The one tonally correct moment in the movie is when Pinnock sends his son into a toy store to buy whatever toy he wants. When the black action figure he chooses costs more money than Pinnock has, Pinnock tries to persuade the boy to buy the cheaper white action figure.  As his son has a minor tantrum, Thomas tells Pinnock to get the kid the toy he wants and to take the extra money out of his wallet.  Pinnock makes a show of surreptitiously taking the money out of Thomas' shirt pocket and slipping the bills into his pant pocket before handing them to his son.  The little white boy is ecstatic with his dark-skinned, nappy-headed "Puma-Man" doll that looks nothing like him.  For the most part, Nakano is totally clueless about the world he has created but in this one instance he gets it right.