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Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Kay McFadden

Bold "Black. White." tries to transform faces, hearts

Seattle Times TV critic

Dialogue about race in America often seems like a fragile rope bridge connecting two distant islands. On one island, skin color is inconsequential. On the other, it's consuming.

FX's exceptional new documentary "Black. White." takes aim at this alienation of connection. It invites a black family and a white family to trade identities. The six-part series, airing 10 p.m. Wednesdays, arrives at a time when race no longer can be confined to the old politically correct, evasive approach that allows cities like Seattle to play racial dodge ball. Affirmative action, immigration and gentrification are causing separate worlds to collide.

Entertainment has handled this trend with a mostly upbeat air. Reality TV is overrun by people swapping spouses, cultures and homes, a process that often climaxes in a communal flourish. To do otherwise is to invite trouble: an edgy ABC series about diverse families competing to win a house was killed.

Some creators, however, have taken a darker approach. The brilliant Oscar winner "Crash" used a succession of bruising encounters between strangers to show that no one could escape the issue of race; sooner or later, it would find you.

Combine the visceral intimacy of "Crash" with TV's switching-identities format and you get "Black. White." which attempts a longer, more entangled form of exploration.

Not only do the Sparks family of Atlanta and the Wurgel family of Santa Monica, Calif., go through elaborate makeup preparation and various forms of coaching to trade places, they live together in a house in Tarzana, Calif., specifically set up for the show and share their experiences night and day for six weeks.

This last element turns "Black. White." from earnest experiment into something fractious and memorable. Taking on someone's skin is nothing compared to getting under it.

As executive producers R.J. Cutler, Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez calculated, the old "Black Like Me" formula was too one-sided with its white author's portrayal of being black.

The series' multi-dimensional approach is introduced in the theme music, a jaunty rap number by Ice Cube that rebuts terms like "race card" and offers common ground: "I been to jail just like Martha Stewart / And we both told the judge that we didn't do it."

With two families of different races in close proximity, this feedback loop becomes constant. It's also exacerbated by the conflict of several different philosophies courtesy of some shrewd casting.

The Sparks family, who are black, consists of Brian, 41; Renee, 38; and their teenage son, Nick. The Sparks parents, like the Wurgels, all have college degrees and fall into the category of white-collar professionals, a form of leveling that lets us focus elsewhere.

Still, nonracial differences creep in. The Wurgels, who are white, include 47-year-old Bruno, 48-year-old Carmen and teenage Rose and are outspoken Californians. They're bound to clash with the polite Southern reticence of the Sparkses.

Furthermore, Bruno Wurgel, a teacher, is the son of immigrants, and his self-made rise defines him. He insists race is less important than the individual and works hard to prove it.

This leads to scenes that make you wonder whether different points of view regarding skin color ever will be resolved — though "Black. White." admirably doesn't try for phony resolution.

When Bruno Wurgel enters a boutique in his black makeup, a sales clerk approaches instantly. Bruno sees this as proof that he's not getting inferior service.

When he crows about it at home, though, 41-year-old Brian Sparks says that Bruno was approached because sales clerks are taught to monitor blacks. This disagreement will form one of the series' core topics.

Carmen Wurgel is a different form of irritant. She's the white armchair liberal who apparently has had little actual interaction with people of color.

In tonight's episode, Carmen is genuinely bewildered when she gets an icy response after calling 38-year-old Renee Sparks "bitch" in what Carmen believes to be a friendly, yo-sistah fashion.

Later, Carmen shops for an outfit to wear to a black church service and actually decides to buy a dashiki. Renee stands by, noncommittally wreaking her silent revenge. As she admits, she's not one to let go of things.

If many of the conversations among the older generation are contentious and fraught with the desire to either overcome or prove preconceptions, an entirely different process is set around the Wurgels' remarkable daughter, Rose.

Rose joins an all-black poetry slam workshop, and her subsequent experiences — including a breathtaking moment of revelation — are immensely moving.

It also recaptures that moment of youth before fear and pessimism take over, evoking the eternal truth of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic "You've Got to Be Taught."

As "Black. White." goes forward, it gets deeper. Part of the exploration is to learn how outsiders respond and the producers put fascinating variations on this concept. Inevitably, this causes reverberations within not just the household, but each family.

In a future episode, quiet Nick meets the gregarious Rose's white friends. His openness with them leads to a memorable clash with his parents over a word. Meanwhile, Carmen undergoes an interesting transformation.

The series isn't, however, about manufacturing surprises to keep viewers engaged.

It's about something more profound and universal — the unbearable nearness of strangers that also brings us closer to ourselves. "Black. White." reflects what we see in the mirror, and our ability to get past it.

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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