Alternate History Lessons in White Man’s Burden

When HBO announced its greenlighting of Confederate, a new series from the show-runners of Game of Thrones, the news was met with a barrage of outrage thanks to its provocative premise: It’s set in an alternate America where the Civil War ended in a stalemate, the North and South exist as separate enemy territories, and slavery has evolved into a modern-day institution. Critics have charged that such a premise exploits the history of slavery and racism in America for pure entertainment value, while defenders have noted that Confederate is merely an example of “Alternate History,” a time-tested genre which includes the similarly premised series The Man in the High Castle (in which Hitler won World War II).

This genre contextualization has done little to sway Confederate’s detractors. Roxane Gay, writing about the series in an article for The New York Times entitled “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction,” asks why seemingly all the examples of alternate history in film and television revolve around the continued subjugation of historically oppressed communities:

“These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved…It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed.”

Gay’s argument brings to mind a film that has been conspicuously absent from this and other recent debates: White Man’s Burden. The 1995 film portrays exactly the premise that Gay cites as missing from mainstream examples of alternative history: one that sees blacks as the ruling class within modern America, and whites as the oppressed minority.

White Man’s Burden stars John Travolta as Louis Pinnock, a diligent factory worker angling for a promotion so as to better provide for his family (which includes a son on the cusp of adolescence and a new-born daughter), until a misunderstanding with his rich, casually bigoted boss, Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte), leads to his sudden termination and quick fall into poverty. Pushed to the limit of his sanity by his inability to secure anything but minimum-wage work, eviction from his home, and unprovoked harassment by the police (including a beating that is clearly meant to invoke the Rodney King assault from three years earlier), Pinnock snaps and kidnaps Thad at gunpoint, holding him hostage in order to extract a particular sum of money that he feels adequately covers his recent losses. Unfortunately for both men, the kidnapping takes place on a Saturday evening. With the ransom being too large to withdraw from an ATM, they must wait until the banks open for business the coming Monday. What follows is a long weekend in which the two men traverse the urban landscape beset by poverty and gang violence, Pinnock trying to remain free, Thad struggling to remain alive. 

With the exception of an opening credits sequence that includes a heavy-handed visual metaphor (the factory where Pinnock is employed makes candy bars, and we watch as the white confections are covered in chocolate during processing) and a cheesy piece of ’90s blues-rock, the film is surprisingly undated, while still serving as a decent snapshot of its era. If White Man’s Burden doesn’t have the bravura filmmaking of Spike Lee’s films from the same period (to which it is clearly indebted, especially in its use of a crescendoing jazz score), or the same sense of narrative propulsion or re-watchability factor of the similarly themed “one bad day” current-issue thriller Falling Down, it still mostly works as a tightly made, pseudo-noir-cum-social-drama in its own right.

This is not to say that it’s an overlooked classic by any means. The narrative never achieves its full potential in terms of tension, partly because the stakes are kept murky until the final 10 minutes (for a movie that revolves around a kidnapping, there are almost none of the requisite scenes where the kidnapper’s plot risks being discovered), and partly because the main characters never truly challenge or believably change one another. Neither is the chemistry between Travolta and Belafonte, in what is essentially a two-man show, anything special. Aside from a questionable choice of accent, Travolta turns in a good performance, though nowhere near the best of his ’90s career renaissance period. Belafonte, meanwhile, brings to the role the gravitas of his legacy as both an actor and an activist, but his performance is too awkwardly stilted to make good on either. (Belafonte starred in a darker — and better — noir that examined the irreconcilable differences between blacks and whites 34 years earlier in Odds Against Tomorrow, a film that Burden can’t help but bring to mind, to its own detriment.)

One of the film’s other shortcomings is its refusal to exploit its stark “what if…” premise. With the exception of a few lines of dialogue, nothing about the story need be changed for it to work as is. As presented, the plot revolves more around the conflicts of class than race, and though the two are inextricably linked, the film never takes the time to make that point or examine why or how.   

And yet, by taking for granted that we all recognize that race, class, poverty, bigotry, and oppression are tied together, the film works on a base level. Despite what the reviews of the time said, there is not much ham-fistedness on display. In fact, race is explicitly mentioned only a handful of times.

Still, the uncanniness of watching white people suffer the indignities, large and small, that are reserved for people of color (especially black Americans), is enough to make the world of the film seem almost like a full-on dystopia (at least to non-black viewers).

White Man’s Burden makes no concessions to false dichotomies, nor does it attempt to carve out any middle ground in regard to the reality it presents: The police in America act as an antagonistic, occupying force within communities of color; wealthy liberal elites use members of that community as props to suit their own purpose and assuage their shame; and black people (or, in the film, white people) are immediately presumed guilty of criminal transgression whenever and wherever they go. This unrelenting recognition of reality creates an undercurrent of danger that remains constant throughout the film, and what the mechanics of the plot lack in tension, the atmosphere makes up for, capturing a feeling of everyday dread that Jordan Peele would sharpen and perfect 22 years later in Get Out.

In attempting to provoke audiences with its premise while simultaneously underplaying it, White Man’s Burden highlights the potential pitfalls of alternate history narratives. Perhaps some level of exploitation in the name of entertainment value is necessary, lest they come off as undercooked, and thus suffer the same fate of White Man’s Burden: dismissed upon release, all but forgotten decades later.

Despite its failings, White Man’s Burden deserved better. It is both a worthwhile experiment and an entertaining film, and its commitment to verisimilitude over cheap sentimentality, as well as its ultimate refusal to present a happy ending or overwrought catharsis, places it far above other middle-brow racial dramas of the same time period, such as A Time To Kill or Higher Learning.

The man behind the film is also deserving of re-evaluation. White Man’s Burden owes its unique perspective on white-black relations to its writer-director Desmond Nakano, who is neither white nor black, but rather a third-generation Japanese American. Nakano has had an interesting, if sparse, career, in that of the three other movies that he’s been attached to — his sole other directorial effort is 2007’s internment camp/baseball drama American Pastime, and he’s a credited screenwriter on Edward J. Olmos’s Chicano crime saga American Me, as well as the adaptation of Hubert Selby’s cult novel Last Exit to Brooklyn — are all dramas that examine America’s castigation of its underclass.

As critical voices continue to call for better representation both in front of and behind the camera, as well as more diverse narratives from historically oppressed and/or invisible voices, Nakano and his directorial debut should serve as a flawed but worthy example. Neither he nor his film deserve to be consigned to the bargain bin of history, alternate or otherwise.

Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, where all history is alternate.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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