Life Swapper

Black. White.
The Sparks family before, top, and after their transformation. (Robert Zuckerman)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- R.J. Cutler appears to have gotten several of his knuckles into his mouth -- he's gnawing, gnawing, all nervous energy. As the lights go down in the theater on the Fox studio lot, the Emmy-winning producer of reality TV slides deeper into his seat, peers over the ballcap of Ice Cube, who is sitting in front of him, and awaits the verdict.

Cutler's latest series is a "premise documentary" for Fox's FX channel called "Black. White." It employs the makeup magic of Hollywood to transform a white family into a black one and a black family into a white one, and then sends them out into L.A. to experience life in a different skin -- all while being tracked by film crews or hidden cameras.

Cutler, who brought in Cube to co-produce (and do the intro rap song), is screening the first episode to an audience of several hundred members and guests of the Los Angeles NAACP chapter to get their reaction -- and their approval. Because if these African American opinion-makers see in Cutler's documentary some kind of exploitative minstrel show (as opposed to a serious yet entertaining examination of race), then he and Fox have a problem.

Pushing society's blinking red warning lights is, in fact, often the point. Cutler has made his share of hot-button television.

In his reality series "30 Days," hosted by Morgan Spurlock and also on FX, Cutler put a straight homophobe in the gay enclave of San Francisco's Castro neighborhood; in one episode, he got a mom to binge-drink like her college student daughter; in another, he finds a fundamentalist Christian willing to live as a Muslim for a month.

Cutler's publicist likes to describe her Harvard-educated client as "the thinking person's Mark Burnett" (Burnett is the producer behind "Survivor" and "The Apprentice"). On Cutler's shows, contestants don't eat bugs.

He is a producer behind that rare subgenre: serious reality TV. His work includes "American High," a cinema verite series on high school that aired in the first summer of the reality show boom in 2000 and won Cutler an Emmy. He followed with documentary-style examinations: "The Residents," about medical students becoming doctors, and the more game-showy "American Candidate," about the mechanics of running for office. (He's also done fluff -- like "Flip That House.") But "Black. White," which premieres tonight at 10 on FX, pushes the race button. A Variety critic described the show as "consistently compelling." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewer called it "thought-provoking, drama-filled." Newsweek was less impressed: "at times it feels phony around the edges."

The Wurgel family as they normally are, top, and in makeup, below. The family stars in FX's
The Wurgel family as they normally are, top, and in makeup, below. The family stars in FX's "Black. White."(Robert Zuckerman)
What Cutler and his team did was hire two families, the (black) Sparkses from Atlanta and the (white) Wurgels from Santa Monica. They were chosen from among several hundred that applied to be on the show. They got paid -- Cutler wouldn't say how much, though typically six weeks' work might get a reality participant $10,000 or so -- and they got transformed. Or as Cutler likes to call it, "they went on a journey." They switch races thanks to the sophisticated makeup talents of Keith Vanderlaan, whose credits include "Big Momma's House" (Martin Lawrence turned into plump matron) and "White Chicks" (Wayans brothers turned into blond heiresses).

It is like a modern-day recasting of the mid-century classic "Black Like Me," the 1961 book by white journalist John Howard Griffin, who used medications and dye to darken his skin and then traveled as a black man around the Jim Crow South.

The Wurgels and Sparkses spend up to five hours a day in the makeup chair, then are followed by a film crew or watched with hidden cameras as they do things like shop, apply for jobs, go to an all-white sports bar, a country music dance hall, a poetry slam class and a public park where black people are playing drums -- all in the other race's skin.

The two families live together, too, in a rented San Fernando Valley house during the six-week experiment -- and they don't seem to like each other very much, even though they were chosen for being, Cutler says, "openhearted" and "left-leaning" and hopeful about bridging the black-white divide.

At the NAACP screening, the majority-black audience in the Fox theater laughs -- a lot. They applaud. They whoop. They appear very much impressed by the transformations -- and literally gasp -- when they see Carmen Wurgel, her teenage daughter Rose and Carmen's live-in boyfriend, Bruno Marcotulli, as their hair is replaced with curly wigs and extensions, their features altered by prosthetics, their skin darkened. They look black. In the show, they pass. The black family, the Sparkses, transforms well, too, especially teen son Nick.

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