Imagine living your entire life as a white person, then suddenly becoming black. Imagine growing up black and then suddenly living life as a white person. A new show on F/X called "Black.White" tries to answer the question: What is it like to live in another person's skin?
Produced by rapper and actor Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler, who produced "American High" and "The War Room," the show is a social experiment on the Sparkses, a black family from Atlanta, and the Warguls, a white family from Santa Monica, Calif. The Warguls have a 17-year-old daughter, Rose, and the Sparkses have a 17-year-old son, Nick.
Keith VanderLaan, who did the makeup for "The Passion of the Christ," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Mamma's House," heads the show's makeup team. To be transformed, each person had to sit in the chair for as many as five hours, and it took two hours to take the makeup off. Cutler said, by and large, people could not tell that the families were wearing makeup. It was an arduous process -- but worth it to prove that race is still a significant issue in the United States.
"I think race is the central defining issue in America today," Cutler said. "It's the foundation of everything. But what's amazing is that it doesn't get talked about that often and, yes, we're always being asked, 'Won't it upset people?' That's not the idea. The idea is to make people talk."
Trading races was a significant transformation, but the show's producers took the process even further. They had the two families live together during the six-week project.
The Sparkses took the transformed Warguls to church. Similarly, Brian Sparks, the black father, underwent his transformation to take a bartending job at a white bar. There, he heard the barroom ruminations of white men, who spoke their minds freely, sometimes with shocking racism. Rose Wargul, the white daughter, attended a poetry slam in makeup and shared some of her writing. She eventually confessed her true identity to the black teenage poets.
In addition, Brian Sparks wanted Bruno Wargul, the white father, to understand the insidious racism that he experienced just walking down the street and going into a store. They went out together, with Wargul transformed into a black man. The two fathers frequently fought. Wargul accused Sparks of looking for racism everywhere.
"Look, I've been black for nearly 41 years, and like all black people I know the difference when a white person has had a bad day and when they are treating me badly because I'm black. You don't get it -- with or without the makeup," Sparks said to Wargul.
"Of course, just because you have on makeup, you are not going to become another race," Ice Cube said. "For instance, for a black man, the obstacles you learn as a boy are being thrown up in your face. Those obstacles will always be stumbling blocks for you and just because you have on a black face doesn't mean you understand that. But from the way the two families deal with each, you learn a lot. It took awhile for Bruno to come to grips with what was going on and what he was seeing."
Another example of the disconnect between the two families was when Carmen Wargul, the white mother, used the expletive "b---h" when trying to speak like a black person -- inciting mother Renee Sparks' ire.
"But that's not being black," she said to Carmen Wargul, who broke down crying.
"I didn't know that," she said.
It's an emotional situation that places incredible amounts of stress on the families.
"When you deal with these kinds of issues, really complex emotions come to the surface," Cutler said.