What if blacks controlled the power in America and whites were the subjugated minority? And suppose John Travolta played the ghettoized working stiff and Harry Belafonte took the role of his racist, rich-bastard boss? You would have White Man’s Burden, a low-budget, high-ambition thumb sucker that only fitfully hits home. Still, the film is acted with powerhouse fervor by the two stars, reflecting the passion of producer Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction) and Japanese-American screenwriter Desmond Nakano (Last Exit to Brooklyn), who makes his directing debut.
Travolta’s Louis Pinnock is a factory worker with a wife, Marsha (Kelly Lynch, whose talents are squandered), and two kids. Louis is in line for a foreman’s job and eagerly agrees when his black supervisor, Lionel (a superb Tom Wright), asks him to deliver documents to the home of big cheese Thaddeus Thomas (Belafonte).
Arriving at the mansion, Louis looks at the upstairs window and inadvertently catches a glimpse of Thaddeus’ wife, Megan (Margaret Avery), in the process of dressing. Thaddeus catches Louis looking and passes a disparaging word to Lionel, which results in Louis losing his job, his house and his family. Later, Louis kidnaps Thaddeus and demands restitution. During the day and night it takes for Thaddeus to get his hands on the money that Louis wants, the two men come to see each other clearly for the first time.
Nakano gets in his canniest digs against bigotry in the early parts of the film as Louis’ family watches TV shows dominated by the black majority and his kids play with black dolls and action figures. The shit that Louis takes from the black power structure extends to getting beaten Rodney King-style by black cops. Travolta brings raw energy and feeling to the inarticulate Louis With Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Burden, he is batting three for three in comeback performances. Belafonte is equally riveting as the well-educated but racially ignorant Thaddeus. At a posh dinner party, Thaddeus complains to his wealthy pals that it doesn’t pay to build developments for whites since it’s in their nature to tear things down. Everyone concedes, though, that whites do have cute babies.
Praise is due to production designer Naomi Shohan and costume designer Isis Mussenden for creating an Afrocentric America that extends to the smallest details in architecture and clothing. What Nakano cannot do is ring deeper variations on his script’s one note. White Man’s Burden spirals into tragedy but never into stirring drama. It stays stuck at the level of noble experiment.