The idea of racial transformation is not new to the movies. In the '40s and '50s, "Pinky" and "Imitation of Life" explored the myth of the Tragic Mulatto, and in director Melvin Van Peebles' 1970 "Watermelon Man," Godfrey Cambridge starts the movie in whiteface, but awakens one day to discover he's black. He begins to realize, with painful rapidity, that the world treats him differently.
Touchstone Pictures' "True Identity" taps the same metaphoric vein. Its plot centers on Miles Pope, a struggling African-American actor played by Lenny Henry, an actor best known in England for "The Lenny Henry Show," his hugely successful half-hour comedy show, which airs, in cycles on the Bravo cable network. Directed by Charles Lane (whose 1988 silent black-and-white film, "Sidewalk Stories," was compared to Truffaut's "Small Change" and Chaplin's "The Little Tramp"), the movie's racial comedy of errors reminds viewers that many black Americans cultivate two personae in order to function effectively in the world.
"Putting on your professional face, I think that's what blacks do when they go out into the world of business--particularly in the media," Henry says. The tall actor furrows his brow for a moment. "I know there's another film, 'Living Large' (directed by Michael Schultz), that addresses this, where the black guy becomes a newscaster, and finds himself becoming more and more Caucasian as he goes along. I think that's a legitimate fact. Black people \o7 do \f7 kind of transform themselves when they're going out into the wide world, where they have to come into contact with white people on a daily basis."
In fact, that's not so very different from life in Great Britain, Henry acknowledges. "You know, there's that thing they tell you when you're little: 'If you're black, you've got to prove you're twice as good as the white guy just to be accepted as usual' . . . didn't your parents say that to you here?" Whenever he heard that admonition, Henry says, "I always wanted to say, '\o7 Why\f7 ?' Just let me try to be twice as good as \o7 I \f7 am, and maybe they'll accept me.
"So sure, there's a huge double-(standard) for us. And I accept the masks, the aspect of what black people have to do to survive in the wider world. It's not pretty, but it's what we have to do.
"And," he concludes quietly, "it's tough."
"True Identity" shows how tough the going gets when Henry's character must change his identity when he inadvertently runs afoul of a mobster. He appeals to his best friend, Dwight (played by Lane), a motion-picture makeup artist. "Ya gotta trust me," Dwight warns, as he spins the transformed Miles around to meet his new self in the mirror: his new self is blond and . . . \o7 white\f7 . In fact, he looks a lot like George Segal. Initially, the metamorphosis has a higher price than Miles is willing to pay. "Look," he tells Dwight, "I traced my roots back to an amoeba in the Gambia! This is not something I want to do--it's almost an insult!" But Miles has a difficult choice: He can masquerade as white and wake up breathing every morning (and, he hopes, collar his would-be assassins) or he can, in the wryly ironic maxim, "stay black and die."
We watch him modify his walk from easy stroll to a clench businessman's swift trot. And he discovers he can hail cabs with uncharacteristic ease and that white women no longer nervously clutch their purses when he approaches.
Andy Breckman's original script for Disney remains fairly true to the premise, but both Lane and Henry insisted on one critical change: "The cardinal thing in this movie was to make sure we didn't pander to that old stereotype," Lane says. "You know, the notion that claims that inside every black person beats the heart of someone dying to be white."
"Miles doesn't want to be white," Henry concurs. "Turning white is a painful decision for him." The fact that "True Identity's" writer was white didn't affect the film's humor, but it did mean that there were, according to Henry, "racial issues that needed to be put in. Not crowbarred in, but they needed to be slipped in there. Black audiences," he says, "would've been (angry) if we'd done the movie and said," he assumes a hearty Ed McMahon-type voice: " 'Hey, it's about a black guy who puts on white makeup and has \o7 lots o\f7 f fun! It's \o7 great \f7 to be white!' "
Henry and Lane look at each other and shake their heads in silent mirth. "No," Henry says with Homey the Clown hauteur, "I don't think so."