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A twist on race
FX transforms two families
By MARISA GUTHRIE
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
FX takes on the controversial issue of race in a new documentary series that puts two families - one white, one African-American - in the same house for six weeks.
That in itself is no great innovation. But "Black. White." - which is targeted for a March premiere - uses makeup to change the color of each family's skin.
"The question is: In 2005, does race matter," said executive producer R.J. Cutler. "Of course it does. But we tend not to really confront it. Racism is prevalent, and white America and black America are two different places. The only way they're really going to become one is if white people can find a way to see the world through the eyes of black people and vice versa."
The six-hour series chronicles the daily lives of the Sparks, an African-American family from Atlanta, and the Wurgels, a white family from Santa Monica, Calif.
For six weeks last summer, they lived together in Tarzana, a middle-class section of Los Angeles. Producers filmed them as they went about their lives in their new skin, which was courtesy of famed Hollywood makeup artist Keith VanderLaan ("The Passion of the Christ").
According to Cutler, "We spent the better part of a year ... designing the makeup, which has the unprecedented bar of needing to succeed not only under the scrutiny of the cameras but to succeed under the scrutiny of another human being who would be standing 3 feet away from you."
Cutler also brought in actor and musician Ice Cube ("Barbershop") to work on the series as a producer.
"I felt it was important to partner up with somebody who had a different perspective and was coming from a different point of view," he said. "He is one of the most powerful and articulate observers of the African- American experience."
Cutler brushed off the notion that "Black. White." could be viewed as a distasteful throwback to the days when minstrel shows were part of the entertainment scene.
"The fact that people are made up is not inherently problematic," said Cutler.
Sociologists tend to agree.
"The whole minstrel analogy, I think, is stretched and lame," said Daniel Monti, professor of sociology at Boston University. "There are movies in which black people pretend to be white and white people pretend to be black in mass entertainment.
"In terms of its larger impact, it depends on how people see it. If the viewer looks upon it as a bad joke or a potentially good idea gone bad, then there are all sorts of opportunities to define it as mischief at best and insulting at worse."
Cutler envisions plenty of opportunities for similar social experiments.
"Young, old, male, female, the concept of living in someone else's skin," he said, "there are many possibilities. I think anybody who's interested in entertaining and engaging and dramatic television is going to watch this. This is dramatic storytelling, and at the center of it are big, fat, important issues."
Originally published on December 8, 2005