A frustrating film with interesting ideas that never quite come together, "White Man's Burden" is well-intentioned and high-minded. But it also suffers from some obvious television influences. It begins like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" and gradually turns into an episode of "Homicide."
Writer-director Desmond Nakano never quite fulfills his promise of an edgy tale that gives an off-kilter spin to our racial expectations, and as the film progresses it settles more and more for being simply a conventional melodrama with a pair of big stars.
Early scenes set up the premise, placing the audience in an America where the balance of power is in the hands of the black community, while whites are the oppressed minority.
John Travolta stars as a blue-collar worker who is barely scraping by as he tries to support his wife (Kelly Lynch) and children. When he takes an assignment to deliver a package to rich and powerful Harry Belafonte, he finds the estate a confusing morass of wrong turns. Lingering a moment, he inadvertently glances at an upstairs window, where Belafonte's wife is dressing. Belafonte sees Travolta, figures him for a peeping Tom and complains to Travolta's boss.
The next day, Travolta is fired, which leads to a series of dead-end job interviews and a depleting bank account. If this isn't enough, Travolta suffers a Rodney King-style confrontation at the hands of a pair of black policemen and the next day he and his family are evicted from their shabby home. As a result, Lynch is fed up and moves in with her mother.
As he hits bottom, Travolta comes up with a plan to kidnap Belafonte and demand a ransom for the amount of money he has lost while being unemployed. What follows is a series of vignettes, as Travolta and Belafonte learn about each other and the world around them until the inevitable tragic climax.
Nakano has a terrific notion here, but after a few moments at the beginning of the film, the uniqueness of this reversal of power goes away. Since it is not that unusual today to see wealthy black men or black cops or black political leaders or white crack-heads with booming boom-boxes, those elements alone do not bolster the theme. Perhaps if we saw a black U.S. president or an all-black Congress or somehow the film managed to keep pace with the central idea, there might have been more impact.
As it is, the kidnapping plot, which makes up most of the movie, is just too routine, despite solid performances by Travolta and Bel-a-fonte.
(And one question: What's with Travolta's orange hair which turns lighter and darker from one edit to the next?)
"White Man's Burden" is rated R for violence and language.