White Man's Burden
In an ingenious opening, this movie reverses but doesn't simplify America's racism. Black Americans are wealthy, established people in big suburban homes; whites, a poor, disadvantaged minority. The scene dramatically reveals assumptions and prejudices in full. Factory worker Louis Pinnock (Travolta), a hard worker eager to score points, nervously delivers a package to the mansion of millionaire factory owner Thaddeus Thomas (Belafonte), forcing us to re-evaluate how we'd see the scene if the worker were black and the rich man white.
Pinnock is told at the front door to go to the back; he pauses uncertainly, and by chance glimpses Mrs. Thomas dressed only in a towel. Mr. Thomas sees it all, and decides Louis is a voyeur. Rather than accuse Pinnock, he suggests at a party that supervisors find another man for future deliveries. Orders from the top amplified on the way down the hierarchy, so his comment becomes an edict: Pinnock is fired.
He and his wife Marsha (Lynch) worry they'll be evicted. Desperate, Louis returns to Thaddeus' home to beg his case, but is turned away. He kidnaps the rich man, but not for ransom. Sad to say, at this point the movie turns into a routine kidnap thriller, with a long chase scene, violence, and police confrontations. Inevitably, Thaddeus and Louis come to respect each other, and the millionaire "learns a lesson."
If instead the film had gone on using its challenging early premise in the clever, effective way of its early scenes, it would help us see how skin color affects behavior, attitudes, expectations, and social standards. For example, when the white character faces black cops, we can guess the cops' assumptions. At the dinner party, as Thomas entertains his guests with bemused racist generalizations, and his wife is shocked when her son comes home with a young white woman.
Written and directed by Japanese-American Desmond Nakano, the film examines America's black/white racism objectively. "To both sides, black and white," Nakano says, "I am 'them.' " Visiting Japan, he was subtly put off: "I'd grown accustomed to being different. It felt wrong to be the same."
Belafonte and Travolta do as well as they can; their final scene is touching and well-acted, showing that they can effective, and that their characters work. In the action scenes, they seem to be in another movie, not one we particularly want to see.
Harry Belafonte, John Travolta, Margaret Avery, Tom Bower
Reverse racism; Harry Belafonte; John Travolta; kidnapping
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