Next week, a new reality TV show will push the hottest button in the national psyche: race. Through Hollywood makeup wizardry two families - one black, one white - swap skin colors to experience life on the other side of the racial divide for six weeks.
The series on FX, titled "Black.White," observes the dads as they find work and buy shoes. It follows the kids as they go to parties and school. And it homes in on the dinner-time conversations of the two families, who share the same house in a Los Angeles suburb during the experiment. The show, whose premise is reminiscent of John Howard Griffin's 1959 book "Black Like Me," examines the often contentious and emotionally charged issues that come up as the families try to see life through new eyes. They discover that racism may be more subtle, but it is still very much what many have dubbed "the third rail of American public life" - the issue nobody wants to touch.
The Monitor, as it has done with other landmark shows, convened a TV panel - in this case, a mixed audience - to watch the first episode and discuss the issues it raises. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ensuing, sometimes heated, conversation often mirrored many of the comments made by the show's participants as they confront their own and each others' views on living in a society where racism seems to be just below the skin.
The participants include Bonnie Davis and Angel Gomez, a married white couple; Lionel Douglass, an African-American actor and author; Gwen Allen, an African-American grandmother; and Julian McLean, her grandson.
As the group settles into a lunch of hummus, tabouleh, and grape leaves, Bonnie and Lionel make it clear that the show has touched raw spots in the hearts and minds of our panel members.
Lionel says: "Wherever you go, people think about color."
Bonnie replies: "It is about color, but it's also more complex than that."
The group has just watched the first hour of the series in which, among other things, the black dad in white face buys shoes and has them slipped on his feet "for the first time in my life," and later has a conversation with the white dad in black face about whether he imagines or actually experiences racism. The moments that seem to have stuck in everyone's mind revolve around differences in perception about racism. Throughout the show, Bruno Marcotulli, the white man in black face, seems committed to the notion that racism is something you create. At one point, he even tells Brian Sparks, the African-American in the show: "You're looking for it."
Panel member Lionel responds with an emphatic rebuttal, just as his TV counterpart does. "Race is definitely still a factor in America," says Lionel, anxious to get his thoughts on record even before the group has fully settled in at the table. "Bruno may not see it or feel it, but it's there."
Both Bonnie and Angel wonder if Bruno is deliberately taking an extreme position, either for the dramatic purposes of the show or to prove that he is not racist. But even if it isn't a consciously extreme position, Bonnie suggests that mental attitude is extremely important in determining experience. "It's a way of approaching things," says Bonnie. "If you have nothing and you feel you'll achieve something if you work hard, then you'll achieve more than if you think you won't."
The discussion about this idea - whether or not blacks bring racism into their experience by looking for it - grows intense, with all sides weighing in, including 12-year-old Julian. "Stereotypes are everywhere," he says. "You can't help but have an opinion about someone based on their hair or their dress or their skin color. It's just the way things are."
At one point, the effort to come to a single position on the subject dissolves and Bonnie and Lionel break off into their own discussion about assumptions. "I would never assume that I understand the black experience," she says, to which Lionel is willing to agree. "You can't really know anything well," he says, "until you experience it."
This observation brings the group back to the question at the core of the show, namely, what will the families learn from six weeks of color shifting?
Brian Sparks, the black father from "Black.White," opines: "Whites will get more from this show than blacks."
This comment underlines what Lionel calls the nuclear button of American life. "Nobody wants to talk about race because it makes them uncomfortable," he says. He concludes that the difference for blacks and whites is that blacks think about it all the time because they are constantly making adjustments to a culture that is dominated by the white experience.
But one of the interesting twists in the show is that both sides realize how much they don't know about the other. In an interview, the show's African-American dad says, "I knew racism was there, but I was shocked." He has just finished a stint bartending as a white person in an all-white neighborhood. Patrons, who assume he is one of them, discuss at length the virtues of keeping their white neighborhood "pure."
"Black.White" offers other eye-opening lessons about cultural differences.
Gwen, the grandmother on the panel, says she has experienced many of the issues that came up on the show. Take the issue of minding one's own business, she says. When the two wives trade tips for fitting in, the black mom advises her white counterpart to "ask fewer questions."
Black people, she says, do not ask questions about other people's lives and don't like such inquiries, either.
"I almost didn't want to come today," says Gwen, "because I was worried that I might get asked all sorts of questions about things that are none of anyone's business." It is interesting to realize that this is not personal so much as cultural, she says. Whites do not shy away from personal questions as blacks do.
Toward the end of the lunch, the conversation moves into a sort of Rorschach test of its own. Gwen brings up a poem written by the white teen, Rose, for an all-black teen poetry class which she joins in her black guise. Rose anguishes over how to fit into the class and comes up with a poem that ends with several graphic references to sex.
"She did that because she thinks that's what blacks relate to," says Gwen, shaking her head in disapproval over the hoary stereotype.
Lionel agrees with Gwen. "I think she did this to fit in," he says, adding, "did you see the way she walked when she came in? It was a deliberately sexy walk."
But Bonnie suggests that this is not a racist move on the 17-year-old's part, rather a reflection of her age. "She's a teenager, and that's what's on her mind."
Bonnie's husband Angel, who has been more reserved than the rest of the panel, sums up what he believes the message of the show will be. "Whites tend to underestimate racism," he says, "while blacks tend to overestimate it."
"Our first thought was, 'No way, you're crazy,' " says makeup artist Brian Sipe, when he heard about FX's "Black.White" project. "I really didn't think we could pull it off, just because of the nature of needing to make these makeups pass at the 2-ft. [distance] level." There's a big difference between making someone up for a film or the stage and doing it for personal contact, he says.
As recently as 10 years ago, Sipe says he wouldn't have even given it a shot. But advances in makeup technology have made it possible for close-ups like never before. He and his team used newly developed super lightweight, extremely sophisticated makeup known as tattoo paint, created for film-star body art such as those Vin Diesel often sports. "It sticks really well and it looks a little aged," he says, explaining that in the past few years the paint companies have expanded their palette to include skin tones. "This was incredibly important," he adds, "because if we had used traditional makeup they would have looked like they just walked off a movie set or a theater stage."
Sipe says the team spent a year and a half testing skin, hair, and eye treatments before they settled on the effects that are used in the show. The participants spent three to five hours each day getting makeup applied and another hour or two removing it at the end of the day.
The biggest challenges were adapting facial features from one race to another, such as the eyebrows on Nick, the black teen. They had to be plucked and reshaped as well as dyed a new color.
And just in case a wig slipped, each family member had a makeup truck in tow. "We were always ready to fix a makeup smear or a contact [lens]," says Sipe. "They were never on their own."