Life Swapper
With 'Black. White,' Producer R.J. Cutler Turns Up the Contrast on Race

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."

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.

"We wanted to blow your mind right away with the transformation," Cutler says. "Because that's when the audience is making its own associations, about what they're bringing to the series and their own feelings about race."

This is a show that Cutler says he feels great passion for -- and also seems a little defensive about, which is one of the reasons Ice Cube was brought in as co-producer.

According to Ice Cube, "my thing was making sure it wasn't too stereotypical," meaning he didn't want the "whites" thrown into a ghetto or the "blacks" trying to get into an all-white country club.

About 15 minutes into the screening of "Black. White," the audience stops laughing when Bruno starts using a racist slur. The camera cuts to Brian and Renee Sparks, who are wincing. Bruno tells the camera that he can't wait for somebody to throw that word at him -- while he is in blackface -- so he can just shrug it off.

In real life, Bruno is a substitute teacher (and a sometime actor, with small parts on "Baywatch" and "JAG," and the role of "sad mime" in the film "Spy Hard"). On TV, he is the one who makes the audience squirm (though Carmen does her share when she asks if she should talk in "jive" while black; in another scene she calls Renee a "bitch" but thinks that is friendly black slang). Bruno and Brian are always going at it, as Brian tells him that racism, in small ways and large, is alive and well, while Bruno says get over it, this is multicultural America, time to move on.

This is not Cutler's take on race, which he calls "the defining issue in American society, history, culture. It's where we've been, where we're at now, where we're going. There is no more important issue. You can't run away from race in this country. It's in our DNA. We must be talking about it; we must be thinking about it; we must be honest about it, aware of where we are in our great struggle to overcome racial divisions."

Presenting issues and conflict in the format of reality television is something Cutler says he thinks about constantly. Strange as it might seem, Cutler says, reality TV is a great vehicle for exploring big questions.

Who is this guy? He's pitching you, of course, but he also appears convinced that his show isn't just mere entertainment, but something important. The man just exudes intent.

Cutler came out of Harvard, directed stage plays in Cambridge and New York and did a stint producing for NPR. Then in 1992 he heard a news segment on the radio about the improbable campaign of an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

"I thought somebody ought to do a documentary about that," Cutler says, and before he knew it, he and his producing partner were sitting down over a bottle of wine with master documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who told them, "Look, if you can get us the money and the access, I'm in," Cutler recalls. "And I'm thinking -- is that all? Not knowing, as I do now, that money and access are everything." Then he corrects himself. "That and storytelling, of course."

The result was "The War Room," the behind-the-scenes travails of characters who would become household names: James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1994.

Cutler followed up with "A Perfect Candidate," about Oliver North's run for the Senate. Then came his work in reality TV, which catapulted Cutler into the highly caffeinated, multitasking role of mega-producer, president and founder of Actual Reality TV.

A few days before the NAACP screening, Cutler let a reporter come over to his Sunset Boulevard offices. The architecture is artist loft, the dress code low-slung jeans, T-shirt and hip shoes. The staffers eat lunch at their desks, and it is exhausting just watching Cutler, who carries a notebook printed with the words "READ ME READ ME READ ME."

In rapid order, over the next two hours, Cutler sits at the head of a conference table, thumbing his PDA, taking calls, getting briefed on the progress of the shows in development, shows being cast, shows in pre-production, shows being shot. They're finalizing episodes of "30 Days" and discussing the insurance implications of having someone walk over hot coals. They're booking crews in India. Now he is signing checks. Now they're talking about "Level 5 background checks" for possible characters in an upcoming series.

Cutler takes a call from a network executive. "Let's just make the damn show," he says, mock frustrated. Then: "I'm so thrilled to be working with you!"

Afterward, someone reviews tape they shot "of bantering addicts." That's another show in development.

Cutler tells his team about the success they're having getting "Thin," the HBO-financed Laura Greenfield documentary about eating disorders and body image, into film festivals. One of his casting producers updates Cutler on a show they're doing for CBS with personal finance coach Dave Ramsey of "Total Money Makeover." She tells him one character "belongs on a reality show" and Cutler asks, "Why, is she inside out?" meaning does she exude, will she reveal? "She's the boss. She'll give Dave the most trouble." That is good; that is conflict.

Then the casting producer tells Cutler "you'll love this," and relates how she got pulled over for speeding on the way home from the casting sessions. The cop let her go with a warning, after she told him she was working in reality. Then the cop pulled her over again. To pitch her an idea for a show. "Really," Cutler says. "What was it?"

"Socialites on skid row."

Hmm, he says. He'll pass.

At the end of the NAACP screening, to Cutler's great relief, the audience approves. The consensus: It felt real, even though it was obviously as unreal as it could be, because you can't make someone black or white. But you can give them a glimpse.

"We didn't want to lie to America," Ice Cube says. "But we didn't want it to be boring either." Ice Cube says the show doesn't end on a happy note.

That was obvious at the NAACP screening. In a Q&A afterward, Bruno asks the audience if there isn't such a thing as black racism towards whites. Then Brian says to him: "After six weeks of dealing with you and the Brunos out there -- this is why America is so screwed up."

Afterward, Bruno and Brian stand together for a few minutes. "We can still have a drink together. We can still work together for the good of show," says Bruno.

"As long as we don't talk about race," Brian says. "That's the ground rule we don't break."

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