December 1, 1995 in Seven

‘White Man’s Burden’ Has Heart, But Stumbles On Cliches, Truisms

Michael H. Price Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

The expression “white man’s burden” comes from the ancient colonial notion that it is the “duty” of the “civilized” European to bring “enlightenment” to the benighted rest of the world - paternalism, along with conveniently excused land-grabbing and genocide, on a global scale.

The new movie “White Man’s Burden” inverts the saying with such dead-earnest irony that its potential for satiric speculation is exhausted before the film is 10 minutes out of the projector-gate. John Travolta and Harry Belafonte are good enough (though far out of their elements) as, respectively, the oppressed and the oppressor, but director Desmond Nakano’s original screenplay is more a cliched sermon than a memorable entertainment.

“White Man’s Burden” makes a pretty good throwback to more naive times. It imagines the dominant culture is that of the Africa-American, and assumes discrimination against white citizens.

Travolta seethes and sulks convincingly enough as a blue-collar type who, having offended a powerful man (Belafonte) and lost his job as a consequence, retaliates by abducting the rich guy. In the ensuing crisis, both the kidnapper and his captive learn that - what a surprise! - they have more in common than they could have suspected.

Its heart is in a good and decent place, but “White Man’s Burden” hardly achieves the bold revelations for which it strives. Belafonte’s dignity and kindliness overwhelm the bigotry that his character is supposed to express, and Travolta’s natural-born spiffy attitude works against his portrayal of a scruffy, downtrodden sort.

But it remains interesting to watch Travolta’s resurgence as a major actor, and Belafonte is a welcome, seldom-seen presence on the screen. Interesting to note that Belafonte starred in 1959 in an ancestor of “White Man’s Burden,” a last-few-people-on-earth melodrama called “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.”

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story:

“WHITE MAN’S BURDEN”

Location: Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas

Credits: Directed by Desmond Nakano; starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte

Running time: 1:30

Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS:

Here’s what other critics say about “White Man’s Burden:”

Jay Boyar/Orlando Sentinel: This is the sort of movie that is much more interesting to talk about than it is to watch.

Chris Hewitt/St. Pioneer Press: The racists who would benefit most from seeing this movie are about as likely to do that as Rush Limbaugh is to show up at the White House Christmas party.

But “White Man’s Burden” raises intriguing questions about the occasional racist thoughts all of us wish we didn’t have.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “WHITE MAN’S BURDEN” Location: Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Desmond Nakano; starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte Running time: 1:30 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS: Here’s what other critics say about “White Man’s Burden:” Jay Boyar/Orlando Sentinel: This is the sort of movie that is much more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. Chris Hewitt/St. Pioneer Press: The racists who would benefit most from seeing this movie are about as likely to do that as Rush Limbaugh is to show up at the White House Christmas party. But “White Man’s Burden” raises intriguing questions about the occasional racist thoughts all of us wish we didn’t have.


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