White Man’s Burden (Re)Visited

Harry Belafonte and John Travolta in the 1995 film White Man’s Burden (Savoy Pictures)





Substitute teaching is one of the most important, underrated jobs of all. Thrust into an unfamiliar environment, in front of an audience that tends toward the hostile, these unfortunate people bridge a canyon of lessons from one ledge to the other until the full-time instructor returns.

I had these substitute teachers by the boatload during middle school. One was so overwhelmed with the assigned lessons in new math-style pre-algebra that he instead delivered a lecture on the importance of empathy toward others. “Empathy is the key. Don’t you agree?” he wrote on the chalkboard. The class responded with a collective yawn, relieved to have a break from linear expressions.

Crippled by callousness, indifference, and racism, we usually rely on books, film, and theater as crutches, helping us make new journeys to better understand ourselves and identify with others. Whether you grew up with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), or Jordon Peele’s film Get Out (2017), each has as its kernel the device of empathizing with people unjustly and savagely treated.

Desmond Nakano’s little-known 1995 film White Man’s Burden, which he both wrote and directed, takes that kernel and grows it into a large, weighty stalk. Set in a world where the economic and social positions of White and Black Americans are reversed, the film does not ask so much for empathy as much as for a sustained suspension of a viewer’s disbelief that these roles could ever be reversed. It dramatizes a hypothetical scenario with its heart firmly on its sleeve—which is the right place. What makes it interesting—and relevant today as an evolutionary marker of attempts to dramatize problems of race—is how admirably it (mostly) fails.

Seeing the trailer in a theater the year this film was released (which was more than twenty-five years ago), I found the jolt it delivered hard to forget. So hard, in fact, that I recently, all these years later, tracked down a DVD copy to watch it all the way through. Score one, then, for Nakano’s film, which received middling reviews upon its initial reception. In terms of sustaining curiosity, at least mine, it certainly succeeded.

The story follows the travails of factory worker Louis Pinnock (played by a John Travolta hot off the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) after he is summarily fired from his job for having allegedly stolen a glance at the factory owner’s wife through an open window. Factory owner and wealthy real-estate developer Thaddeus Thomas (played by a cool Harry Belafonte) never quite intends for Pinnock to lose his job. But wielding so much power as a rich industrialist, and with condescending platitudes delivered during dinner parties with other rich Blacks, he is not altogether conscious of how much power he holds.

“I’m not politely talking about anything,” Thomas tells his friends, waited on inside his mansion by a White maid and White kitchen staff. “White people are ‘genetically inferior,’ or they’re ‘culturally crippled,’ or they’re ‘socially deprived.’ All of those arguments mean absolutely nothing. The bottom line is a very simple question: Are these a people who are beyond being helped?”

It is not just Thomas who wields more power than he could ever be conscious of, but all the institutions and practices sustaining Black supremacy. Advertisements and television shows feature predominantly Black faces and families. The lawn jockeys adorning the mansions of rich neighborhoods feature White faces. Every White character displays a fawning, self-abnegating demeanor to their Black superiors. The film even turns the famous “Doll Test,” designed by Dr. Kenneth Mark during the Supreme Court’s hearing of Brown v. Board of Education, on its head. When Pinnock tells his child to pick a White action-hero toy doll for his birthday present, his young son repeatedly insists he will only have the Black action-hero doll.

One after the other, White Man’s Burden drops the anchors of this alternative world. When Pinnock cannot land a new job after being fired, he and his wife are humiliated at length, and in front of their young son, by a Black officer serving the eviction notice. The bad side of town teems with poor Whites drowning their sorrows in dive bars, churlish skinheads blasting heavy metal tunes from portable stereos, and White small business owners struggling to make it despite all the strife and sociopathy of their community. In a bald-faced attempt to translate the zeitgeist of the nineties into the storyline, Pinnock is clubbed to a pulp by officers mimicking the 1991 beating of Rodney King. “Of course you fit the description [of a criminal],” says a bedraggled witness to Travolta’s bludgeoned and bleeding character. “At night we scare the shit out of them because we all look just like white ghosts glowing in the dark.”

The film’s premise reveals, over and over, the dubious context of racial oppression: People are marked for inferiority and callous treatment because a majority of one group of people happen to hold and wield power. In this world that powerful majority just so happens to be Black. What it does not quite do is pull all of its hypotheticals across an interesting storyline and over the finish line. This is raw ideology, not an authentic drama that builds a framework of empathy, let alone pathos or tragedy. In setting up so many scenarios that turn the tables on White supremacy, Nakano isolates his film’s idea on an island with nowhere else to go.

But the plot soldiers on. Travolta’s Pinnock kidnaps Belafonte’s Thomas at gunpoint. The two men yell at each other, each believing the other fails to grasp certain fundamental but opposing realities. They speak past one another, until Thomas reassesses his prior pronouncement that “White children have no fathers,” which he retorted after Pinnock expressed pride that, every day since the birth of his first child, he always came home to his family after work. Ending with a hackneyed police shoot-out that takes Pinnock’s life as Thomas watches, the film leaves them no time to reconcile their differences. The point? That we must all affirm each other’s humanity before it is too late.

White Man’s Burden is a useful but limited exercise in turning the tables. Watching it through my White-man’s eyes, though, I grew increasingly depressed at being asked, in effect, to loathe its Black characters and hope the best for Pinnock and other Whites living under oppression. Wanting to see oppressed people made free is easy. But because people are complicated—and also because, to be honest, we want to be entertained—we crave other reasons to root for fictional characters and actors.

Granted, the list of films using cheap devices to manipulate audiences into empathizing with characters different from themselves is long. In this film, it is as if Nakano does not trust people to sympathize with others long enough without another hammer to the head.

Travolta’s Pinnock never transcends its intended role as the White everyman oppressed by this fictionalized Black world. He is too general in outline to deserve our empathy. The alternative world of the film is likewise too general in outline, a place where cause and effect are never quite made clear. In White Man’s Burden, oppression is little more than a blunt force.

When we contrast this movie with Peele’s 2017 bombshell, Get Out, its faults become even clearer. Pinnock merely rails against Black people who cannot find the time to care about his plight. Peele’s protagonist, a Black photographer from Brooklyn who travels to meet his White girlfriend’s upscale parents, must contend with people who feign admiration of Black people and Black culture but will ultimately turn on him in the worst way, for the benefit of White strangers. Where White Man’s Burden beats one note of what racism might feel like, Get Out portrays racism as authentic horror and ruthless betrayal.

White Man’s Burden is the belated lesson of empathy taught by a substitute teacher with one message and 90 minutes of time to fill. Its most valuable lesson is that, having watched it, we are reminded that millions of people endure not just 90 minutes of condescension, oppression, and racism projected on a movie screen, but a lifetime of all three.