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White Man's Burden: the problem with "message movies"

Updated on November 23, 2010

"White Man's Burden" is not a terrible movie, but it is a disappointing one, squandering an interesting concept in a film that is somewhat boring, more than a little bit depressing, and muddles the message it is trying to put forth.

"White Man's Burden" is set in a universe where basically white and black people have switched  places; blacks are rich and powerful, while whites are poor and repressed. However, this change in society is literally only skin deep: there's no indication that American culture is any different in this world where African Americans dominate. It's actually really disappointing that the writers couldn't think of anything more creative than having a toy store full of black dolls and action figures, with only a token one white action figure that the main character's kid doesn't want.

Speaking of the main characters, they're also problematic. John Travolta plays Louis Pinnock, a poor white man who's been working for years in a candy factory with no real sign of advancement, who decides to deliver a package from his boss to the home of the owner of the factory, Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte). While looking for someone to give the package to, Louis peeks in a window and sees Thaddeus' wife, which Thaddeus is uncomfortable with. Mentioning this to the foreman at the factory gets Louis fired, and unable to find another job.

Desperate, Louis decides to kidnap Thaddeus in order to get the money he feels he is owed. Unfortunately, they arrive too late to the bank, and Louis refuses to allow Thaddeus to call anyone to transfer him the money, leaving them at an impasse and having to wait for the bank to re-open on Monday, while police meanwhile attempt to track them down so they can arrest Louis and free Thaddeus.

A big problem with the movie is that Louis is not a sympathetic enough character. He's obviously supposed to be, what with all the problems in his life and the unfairness of his situation, and his actions later in the movie demonstrate his goodness, but after every time he rejects a solution Thaddeus puts forth, solutions we're given to believe Thaddeus would go through with, he becomes just a little bit harder to relate to. Thaddeus, on the other hand, it seems like the writers didn't know what to do with, as he seems to alternate between being smug, being naive, and being sympathetic. This is not helped by the fact that Belafonte, while not a terrible actor, seems rather disconnected from his character.

As I said before, this movie is watchable, but it definitely doesn't live up to its potential. It's the kind of thing you really only ever need to see once, if that. If you see it for rent or in a bargain bin for cheap you might as well check it out, but it's not really worth spending more than maybe $5 or so on it     


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      B-Dawg 5 years ago

      David Ley,

      Interesting movie. I am a biracial man half black half white. I have been studying race for 6 years. I honestly think if the white man had black skin in todays society he would like it. There is a certain respect black men get that white men don't. People don't mess with you as much if you are black. I am telling you black skin = protection. It is like a shield. It also attracts lots of fine women. So don't think black skin is not a blessing. I think the white man should get a black spray tan. I am as serious as a heart attack. Peace.