White Man’s Burden

Back in the 90’s, racism was old hat. To anyone who wasn’t Black, all the signs pointed up- we all were quite aware of the Civil Rights movement, thank you very much, and our generation had moved beyond that. We had Spike Lee, Tribe Called Quest, and… well, things were pretty much on track for Black and White to finally live on the same level playing field.

With that mentality, it shouldn’t be a surprise that White Man’s Burden was a total critical and commercial failure when it arrived in 1995. A movie about an America where White people are the poor & oppressed and Black people have all the privilege seemed to deserve a giant eye roll at the time, like “yeah, we get it. Racism is bad. Tell us something we don’t know.” The whole thing just felt like a silly gimmick- a bad joke that wore itself out half an hour into the movie. If you don’t believe me, check out the 24% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes- or reviews like this one by filmdom’s beloved Roger Ebert.

But Desmond Nakano’s experiment in role-reversal isn’t just a gimmick- it is, in fact, a really solid and entertaining film that still carries the exact mental and emotional punch it was meant to deliver three decades later. In fact, given where America is today, one could argue that the punch has gotten rawer; White Man’s Burden is more poignant and important now than it was when it came out, as crazy as that might sound.

There’s two very clear reasons for this. The first is the surprising power of that visual metaphor. You can imagine a world where Black people are on top and Whites are on the bottom- that seems easy enough. But it’s another thing entirely to be immersed in it; from the derelict hood littered with poor white people to seeing a little White boy shopping in a toy store full of Black action figures (and preferring one of them to the lone White action figure he’s offered as representation,) the power of these visuals really does put things into perspective in a way words simply fail at. That goes triple when we get to witness the brutal and inhumane way two Black cops beat on John Travolta for simply being White- an inversion to a visual we have unfortunately gotten used to seeing way too many times in the last decade. Triggering? Yeah, hopefully it’s triggering. That’s the point.

Travolta is half of the second reason for the film’s success. He reprises his Vinny Barbarino, but this time with a lot more emotional depth, as he plays a working-class father trying to keep his family from descending into poverty and chaos. The other half of the film’s winning team-up is the great Harry Belafonte, who plays a rich guy full of subconscious racism against White people. He would never think himself as racist, of course- he just can’t understand why these people can’t seem to get their act together as a race, no matter how many handouts we give them. Together, they elevate a standard Hollywood plot into a genuinely nuanced conversation about race. Director Nakano wisely keeps the story from becoming a syrupy buddy film or something else that would betray the real issue: even if individuals can find a way to bridge these racial barriers for a moment, the system we live under overwhelms us all.

Originally, critics panned the way the film seems to devolve into a typical kidnapping / chase movie part way through- and I probably would have, too, had I bothered to watch it at the time. Today, that genre trope actually feels like the entire point- by delivering a legitimately well-crafted Hollywood action flick, Nakano subverts the genre and forces us to become aware of so many societal issues we’ve become desensitized to. It foreshadows what Spike Lee was to do later in Inside Man, injecting a really entertaining heist film with tons of great social commentary most of its viewers were not expecting. White Man’s Burden is not an academic exploration into race- it’s an entertaining, gripping yarn brought to life by a couple of great actors and an unknown Japanese-American filmmaker who had something important to say about our messed up concept of race.

6 thoughts on “White Man’s Burden

  1. Sadly, gofile is not accessible for me anymore. Not even using the Opera VPN (which worked two weeks ago). All I get is an error page. In any case, thanks for the tip, I had never heard of this movie before, will try to find it somewhere.


    1. Not sure what is going on there- we’ve checked GOFILE on many different computers and browsers without a problem. That said, Crab Devil’s comment below is a good one- we recommend getting the free program JDOWNLOADER2, which works wonders. Just feed it any file download URL (YouTube, anything) and it grab the file for you. If that doesn’t work, we are stumped!


  2. Thanks! I’m looking forward to this one. Even so, let me follow up on what Chrisz is saying. I couldn’t initially access the file, not even after trying three different browsers. I kept getting error pages — not to mention warnings from my antivirus software. What finally ended up working for me was the Jdownloader 2 program. So it IS, in fact, possible to download this item from gofile, but there’s still something wrong here.


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