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Why TV Is Better Than the Movies

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Renee and Brian Sparks and their son, Nick, a black family from Atlanta, switch ethnic identities with the help of makeup in the new reality series

FX / AP

We all know why the movies are superior to TV, right? TV relies on formula and cliches. It repeats itself, it insults your intelligence and it has no sense of subtlety. The movies, on the other hand, with their larger canvas, are much better at treading new ground, confounding our expectations and expressing the nuances of relationships.

Or are they? Sunday night, the Best Picture Oscar went to Crash, a sprawling look at race and racism in Los Angeles. It was provocative and socially ambitious, in a Stanley Kramer message-movie way. But it also portrayed a kind of blatant, in-your-face racism that, while it makes for high drama, ignores how racism has become a much more subtle, veiled and tough-to-pin-down problem. (For a more detailed critique of Crash’s picture of race relations, see Matt Zoller Seitz’s outstanding dissection of the movie.) In the world of Crash, people are just one car accident or argument away from turning into epithet-spewing bigots. Is it affecting and moving? Maybe, but it’s also an exaggerated image that lets the audience off the hook, because we can feel easily superior.

Ironically, this Wednesday, FX is debuting a reality show that is also about race in Los Angeles. On Black. White. — no, unfortunately, the periods are not a typo — two families, one black, one white, put on movie makeup to spend several weeks living life as members of the other race. (For a more detailed look inside the show, see my feature here.

The reality show must be much dumber and more simplistic, right? In fact, at least in one sense, Crash could have learned a lot from Black. White. Rather than assume that we’re all closet bigots, Black. White. proceeds from the premise that racism has become hidden in America: our problems aren’t solved, but they’re muffled by a sort of corporate, official color-blindness that prevents many of us from talking about race at all, at least with people of other races.

Racism, Black. White. assumes, is so not-in-your-face that you literally have to change your face to pick up on its subtle cues. The father of the white-turned-black family, Bruno, is obsessed with the idea that someone will call him "nigger" while he’s in makeup. The black participants tell him that racism today doesn’t usually work like that, and they, and the show itself, take his belief as evidence of his naivete. In the world of Crash, he’d be pretty much right on.

Black. White. has its own problems and manipulations, like any TV show. Some of the peripheral participants in the show told the LA Times that the show told some incidents out of context to heighten the drama. They say, for instance, that the producers included an interview with a white man at a mostly white bar who said black people are "proud to be dumb," but left out interviews with more open-minded patrons.

But their accusations, even if true, are mild compared with the liberties Crash takes. Black. White., contrary to its name, takes pains to show the shades of gray in race relations today. For a truly black-and-white message, you’ve got to see an Oscar-winning movie.

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