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Turnabout of Foul Play : In 'White Man's Burden,' John Travolta and Harry Belafonte tilt racism on its head, in a universe where black culture dominates. Get ready to rock your world.

March 19, 1995|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

John Travolta is holding a gun on Harry Belafonte. Which is something the beat-up cars and under populated buses occasionally passing this deserted stretch of downtown's Hope Street don't see every night.

These two generational icons are jammed into a street-side phone booth, shooting a late-night scene in which an unraveling Travolta phones his family, trying to persuade his kids to stop fighting, telling his wife just how horny he has been out on the lam. All the while he keeps a pistol lodged in his hostage's--Belafonte's--gut.

Silent through this monologue, Belafonte appears none too sympathetic to his captor's long-distance domesticities. Still clad in the sharp suit he was kidnaped in, he looks annoyedly away from Travolta, as if bodyguards should arrive at any second to remove this gun-toting gnat from his side. His jaw muscles visibly clench in impatience. Belafonte looks so stiff, so proper, so uptight, so . . .

. . . White?

That may not seem to necessarily follow. And yet here is Belafonte, the legendary African American civil-rights ambassador, playing the Caucasian lead--sort of--in "White Man's Burden," an independent film in production about a race-related conflict between two very proud men.

Which must mean, of course, that Travolta--tackling his first role since becoming a star again with "Pulp Fiction"--has been assigned here to the, er, black lead.

No, this isn't a Newt Gingrich nightmare of affirmative action gone wrong. (There's a major conceit at play, but it's not the laugh-getting casting leap of "Suture.") But you would be correct in sensing some collision of Rod Serling and Ralph Ellison at work.


"White Man's Burden" takes place in an alternate universe nearly identical to ours but for the fact that in this doppelganger America the black culture is the dominant one, socially and economically, and whites are primarily a patronized underclass. Just your basic suspension of disbelief.

Travolta plays a menial worker struggling to keep his family fed and clothed even before he he's unfairly laid off, as the result of an order sent down from Belafonte's arrogant CEO. Almost faster than you can say Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge , Travolta has snapped, abducting Belafonte in a hasty scheme to set things right that quickly goes awry.

The nearest parallel in terms of such a major twist might be "Fatherland," the novel and TV movie whose post-World War II story took place against the precept that Germany won the war. But Travolta, for one, is thinking in terms of more basic antecedents.

"I think it's an American tragedy--I do," he says, his pistol tucked away for safekeeping, sitting back in his trailer later. "It's more like those '50s tragedies, like Tennessee Williams or Inge or Frank D. Gilroy would write, or like 'Death of a Salesman.' It's very modern, but it just has that kind of feeling about the characters that we haven't seen in a while.

"And you've got that gift of opposition--Harry and I are playing two things we're not, by nature. He plays a bigot. And the aggression is interesting for me to play, because I've never played a guy that was capable of this level of anger. There's a lot of violence in him, but only if he's forced to be violent. It's not his nature, but it is his urge to survive in a very oppressed situation."

What exactly is behind Travolta's rage?

It's a black thing.

Writer-director Desmond Nakano watched a lot of old "race" movies, like "The Defiant Ones," and found himself wondering if there were some more effective ways to get to the heart of the matter in the '90s than merely setting up a series of injustices.

"Everybody knows racism's bad," says Nakano (making a directorial bow after script credits including "Last Exit to Brooklyn"). "If a white audience watches a movie about discrimination against black characters, they know who they're supposed to root for, and they can sympathize.

"That's not the same as empathize . There's a big difference. In those movies, they can say, 'Gee, that's too bad for them.' Whereas in this movie, the us and them is obliterated, so you can't say that, and it really short-circuits your thinking."

Inevitably, then, the film will include a scene in which Travolta gets beaten up by a group of black cops, an un-pigmented Rodney King. The unease may be a little subtler when Travolta is toy shopping for his kids and is faced with row upon row of tiny black faces in the store windows, with a token white doll or two thrown in for good measure.

With the filmmakers playing the skin-color twist for such extreme irony, it will require no little dramatic intensity to get viewers past the distracting gates of the Twilight Zone and into the story proper.

"I kind of think it works even without the race issue," insists Travolta, who has dyed his hair blond to play black, as it were. Sans twist, he says, "it might not be as intriguing, but it certainly would work. It would be more about classism, then."

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