(from The Watermark 12/10/95)
WHITE MAN?S BURDEN (John Travolta, Harry Belafonte): A neat idea gone bad, the film takes place in a society where black people have all of the money and power, and white people are the oppressed minority. Travolta is an innocent worker for one of Belafonte?s factories. When Belafonte unintentionally has Travolta fired, Travolta takes him hostage, and in true buddy-movie form, Belafonte gains insight into the racial injustice he perpetuates.
The film could have worked beautifully, but it has three blatantly obvious problems: First, it needs to better explain the racially-flip-flopped-society thing. Did black Africans colonize the states and were white slaves imported from Europe, perhaps? Was there a time whites had power, but lost it? The lack of basic information weakens the punch that the film is trying to deliver.
Second, and most glaringly wrong, is the way the film is too heavy-handed. There are no wealthy white people and no poor black people - anywhere. We know this isn?t the case in our own society. Shouldn?t a film about racism strive to shatter stereotypes instead of reinforcing them? The film shows Travolta being unnecessarily beaten by two black cops as though it?s something we wouldn?t ordinarily believe can occur. If this film had been made twenty or thirty years ago, it would have been a jarring wake-up call. In 1995, everybody is quite aware of racial inequality. It seems awfully pandering.
Third, I felt completely helpless as I left the theatre. What are we supposed to draw from the film? What can one person do to help? To the makers of White Man?s Burden, three words come to mind: Offer a solution.
Queer Quotient: When is someone going to make a film in which the entire world is homosexual, except for a small percentage of outcasts who are attracted to the opposite sex? Harvey Fierstein should write it, don?t you think? It couldn?t be worse than this crap for the subtlety-impaired.
POST-REVIEW 11/23/2009: My proposed "Queer Quotient" idea was actually done... in the form of an off-Broadway musical called "Zanna, Don't!" It ran for a few months in 2003 and it starred Jai Rodriguez before he became famous on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. It's a pretty fun show, go see it if it's ever produced near you.