Given the percolating national discussion of race and criminal justice as well as the rise of pop culture breakouts such as “Empire,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which feature non-white people talking candidly about race (among other subjects), it was inevitable that pop culture would circle back around on itself to address how white men feel about racism in America. But part of what’s fascinating about some of the recent depictions of white men who either feel guilty about their racial privilege or learn more about the realities of racism in America is just how useless their raised consciousness seems — whether by coincidence or by design.
In “Truth Be Told,” a Friday-night NBC comedy starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Mitch, the one white person in the group made up of his wife, Tracy (Vanessa Lachey), his best friend, Russell (Tone Bell), and Russell’s wife, Angie (Bresha Webb), Mitch’s racial hyper-consciousness serves mostly as another iteration of the sitcom neurotic, rather than the basis for any brutal or brutally funny conversation about bias. And far more effectively, this summer’s “Straight Outta Compton” cast a gimlet eye on how manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) monetized N.W.A.’s critique of racism and police brutality while simultaneously exploiting the musicians themselves.
“Truth Be Told” clearly wants to ride the wave of shows such as “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” that have mined frank insights about race for comedy, but it feels like a throwback in ways that go far beyond its laugh track. Mitch’s defining characteristic is that people will think that he’s a racist, but he doesn’t do much about it except overcompensate by suggesting that other people might be biased. “I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about these things. I know I’m not,” Mitch frets at a Chinese restaurant when Russell begins to speculate about whether the waitress might be putting on a heavy accent to conform to customers’ expectations. Shortly thereafter, he begins to lecture their white valet about assuming that Russell’s car actually belongs to Mitch because Mitch is white.
But that understanding apparently doesn’t extend to recognizing that there is no circumstance or form in which he’s allowed to use certain language. “I get I can’t say that word. But I can’t sing it?” he asks Russell in the car when Russell stops him from rapping along to “Empire State of Mind,” setting a debate that would have felt dated in 2005 or 1995. “You should hear me do it because I don’t pronounce the r!” When he and his wife, Tracy, contemplate hiring their neighbors’ babysitter, Mitch frets that “I’m a white guy who’s married to a woman who’s ethnically ambiguous. If we hire a babysitter who’s also ethnically ambiguous, it’s going to look like I have a thing.” Russell points out that, of course, Mitch does have a history of being attracted to women of mixed race.
Mitch’s guilt doesn’t actually benefit anyone. When he stands up for Russell with the valet, he turns out to be wrong: The man thought the car was Mitch’s because of the CD that was playing in it. His anxieties about the babysitter get resolved when the young woman catches them watching her in an adult film and quits in a fit of pique. In fact, his anxieties about race tend to turn out to be baseless in a way that actually minimizes the idea that racism is a significant problem.
Series creator D.J. Nash may have wanted to create a show about “four friends who are what I call true friends, friends who don’t pull punches … These are friends who are willing to say anything to each other. They love and respect each other so much that no topic is off limits,” as he said at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer. But the pilot episode, if it’s meant to be a thesis statement for “Truth Be Told,” is set up to assure viewers that any ensuing conversation about race won’t be particularly challenging or hurtful.
It’s particularly interesting to contrast Mitch in “Truth Be Told” with the evolution of Jerry Heller, the perceptive, scabrous music producer placed with malevolent verve by Paul Giamatti in F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” one of the hits of the summer movie season. Gray establishes the police violence and harassment that the members of N.W.A. were subjected to long before they meet Heller. But it’s fascinating to watch Heller start to experience that violence for himself.
Heller might have an ear for rap music when he signs Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to a contract. But he doesn’t have much of a feel for the environment his new colleagues grew up in or the specific contours of their worldview. “What does N.W.A. stand for? No Whites Allowed or something like that?” he asks them, slightly anxious, before they start working together.
“These are not bangers. These are artists … They’re working with me in the studio right now,” Heller tells a mixed-race group of cops who try to arrest the members of N.W.A. when they take a break from work at Heller’s business. When vouching for the group doesn’t work, Heller tries to teach the cops their jobs, insisting “You cannot come down here and arrest these guys because they’re not white.” And even when he manages to persuade the cops to release them, Heller gets a lesson in the ways that his privilege can be used against his colleagues even as he’s trying to use it to protect them. “Everything’s fine,” he tells N.W.A. as the tension dissipates. “You heard what your master said,” the black cop sneers at the younger men. “Get inside. Boy.”
Even that experience doesn’t entirely disabuse Heller of his notion that law enforcement follows the rules: Later in the movie, as he’s getting arrested along with members of N.W.A., he yells “This is completely f—— illegal” at the cop who’s putting cuffs on him. It’s not that Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) or Eazy-E are any less defiant on the many occasions in the movie when they’re confronted by the police. But their defiance is tinged with despair and a real sense that they could end up dead at the end of the encounter. Heller’s outrage is tinged by shock that something so unfair could happen at all.
Heller gets an education in certain aspects of racism by working with N.W.A. But that doesn’t automatically make him a good man or even consistently anti-racist. He urges N.W.A. to stop playing “F— Tha Police” after the FBI sends the group a “reasonably worded threat.” While he recognizes the power of N.W.A.’s lyrics and sociological analysis, Heller remains fundamentally a businessman rather than a political ally, stonewalling on giving Ice Cube a contract. And he’s also willing to play race politics of his own, threatening to call “my friends at the JDL [Jewish Defense League], let them handle that,” when Ice Cube affiliates himself with the Nation of Islam. Eventually, even Heller’s relationship with Eazy-E curdles into an ugly paternalism. “I know what’s good for you,” Heller tells him. “I know what’s good for Ruthless [Records].”
And that’s sort of the point that “Truth Be Told” makes by accident and “Straight Outta Compton” hammers home on purpose: A simple awareness that racism exists isn’t the same thing as actual moral goodness, nor proof that a white person possessed of that awareness is doing anything useful with it. Next time someone wants to create a sitcom that claims to provide real talk on race, that might be one place to start the conversation.