Not Just Black and White

New prime-time television shows offer textured portraits of racial difference

February 26, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Did ya get your race card?

I didn't get my race card.

Hell no, I didn't get my race card.

Homeboy, when ya get your race card?

White boy, what is a race card?

- from the theme song for the FX reality show, Black.White., Lyrics by Ice Cube

A black family and a white family trade lives. Hispanic high school students protest inequities in the Los Angeles public education system. A thief grapples with racial tensions in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Although prime-time television may seem an unlikely venue for frank explorations of race, scenarios like these - in which ethnic differences influence story lines or inform character descriptions - increasingly are being played out onscreen.

Contrary to notions of TV as escapist fare, an informed and highly charged discussion of ethnicity, identity, and race this season has taken root in entertainment television. It will intensify in coming weeks with the debut of new series and made-for-TV movies from producers and directors like Ice Cube and Edward James Olmos, featuring such stars as Andre Braugher, Yancy Arias and Malik Yoba.

While prime-time police and crime dramas - NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street or Law & Order, to name two - for years have dealt wisely with matters of race, shows that offer further serious treatment of race and its ramifications are popping up throughout the medium. From cable to network and public TV, in drama, comedy, reality, animation, documentary and variety shows, television is beginning to grapple with one of the nation's thorniest issues.

And many of the programs driving this trend have aired or are scheduled to air outside the parameters of Black History Month, long television's repository for political correctness.

TV as a mirror

Viewers can, of course, tune out the discussion with the push of a button; nonetheless, for the foreseeable future, this onscreen conversation about race seems likely to continue.

"The extraordinary thing about television, I truly believe, is that across its vast landscape it really does accurately reflect who we are as a culture at any given moment," said Emmy Award-winning filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who, with rapper Ice Cube, is co-producing a reality-documentary series in which a black family and a white family trade homes and routines. Called Black.White., the show has its premiere March 8 on the FX cable channel.

"What you are seeing now - after Katrina - is a nation and a culture that are concerned about the issue of race, that are concerned about the vast class divisions that we have in this society. And it's not surprising at this moment in our history that explorations of racial issues would be bubbling up from the television landscape."

From HBO's Walkout, a film about a series of Hispanic student uprisings in East Los Angeles, to FX's Thief, a drama about a ring of New Orleans jewelry thieves, next month's lineup of new shows promises both re-examinations of racial history and dramatic renderings of characters coming together despite racial differences.

And many shows this season are notable for presenting ethnically diverse, multi-dimensional characters who possess a sophisticated understanding of cultural identity.

Cable channel FX's Black.White. offers viewers glimpses of how skin color can affect even the most mundane aspects of life. The show follows for six weeks the members of two middle-class families as they have their appearances altered with makeup and then try to exchange lives.

In one scene, the African-American father - disguised as a white man - visits a segregated country club for the first time. He describes with wonder how a pro-shop salesman used a shoehorn to help him try on a pair of golf shoes. It was the first time, he said, that any salesperson ever has helped him that way.

In `each other's skin'

"If you look at hip-hop, movies, the Internet - of all of them - TV is the one that can play the ultimate role in bringing people together ... in helping them see what life is like inside each other's skin. That's why I'm involved in doing this on television," said Ice Cube.

"My goal is to provoke discussion - to get people to think about race and talk about it around the water cooler. That's the only way we make progress - by coming together and talking things out. And nothing can make that happen like television. It can make it happen for a serious discussion on race just like it can for watching the Super Bowl. And that's why I think you see more producers and performers moving into TV."

One of hip-hop's best-selling artists and the producer of hit feature film franchises Friday and Barbershop, Ice Cube wrote and performed Black.White.'s in-your-face theme song. Titled "Race Card," his rap sets the tone for a hard-eyed exploration of race relations with its insistent refrain: "Did ya get your race card?"

And he is only the latest non-white artist to bring his insights and edge to prime time this season.

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