What’s it like to live in someone else’s skin? FX Networks tried to answer that question in March 2006 with a six-part documentary series Black.White. produced by RJ Cutler and Ice Cube – both of whose credentials offered some assurance that this would be the provocative and insightful show they claimed. Their claims that they were ‘doing something that has never been done before’ were however incorrect – the BBC had screened Trading Races some four years previously.
Black. White. examined race by putting new faces on an African-American family, the Sparks, and a Caucasian family, the Wurgels: the Wurgels (Bruno, Carmen and their daughter Rose) became black and the Sparks (Brian, Renee and their son Nick) became white.
In their new identities, they got jobs, made friends, went to church and became members of a new community. As their relationships with their new friends developed, complications ensued. In an equally important part of the production, the Sparks and Wurgels shared a home in Tarzana, California for six-weeks, discussing their experiences each day over a communal meal. The overall experience was claimed to challenge ‘their beliefs and core values in ways they could have never imagined’.
RJ Cutler said they:
We’re doing something that has never been done before that advances in makeup technology allow… [We] spent the better part of a year … designing the makeup, which has the unprecedented bar of needing to succeed not only under the scrutiny of the cameras but to succeed under the scrutiny of another human being who would be standing three feet away from you.
I was less than impressed to discover that two of the Wurgel family were in ‘the business’: Bruno Wurgel, described as a teacher on the show, appears on IMDb as Bruno Marcotulli with an acting resume running from 1987 to 2002; Rose Wurgel also as an IMDb entry, as Rose Bloomfield, with a couple of entries; Carmen Wurgel a photographer’s location scout heard about the show ‘from a friend who had a friend who was working on the show’. Anyone with a brain questions just how ‘real’ is reality TV: this casting choice was for me immensely damaging to its ‘face validity’. I was astonished when I discovered that the French version, Dans la peau d’un noir (Famillie Sina & Famillie Richier), did exactly the same; indeed one participantlater sued the producers for payment for interpreting a role in manipulated scenarios .
Whatever, the makeup was incredibly well done and deserving of its Emmy Award.
Keith VanderLaan’s now-defunct Captive audience Productions was responsible for special effects makeup; Brian Sipe was makeup effects supervisor & designer; Will Huff was key makeup artist. was responsible for the makeup transformations. The makeup application for each family member took three to five hours for every day of the six-weeks’ filming – though not everybody was in makeup each day. Unlike other in-your-shoes programmes the makeup had to survive not only one-off face-to-face encounters but repeated interaction with new friends and acquaintances. Keith VanderLaan, Brian Sipe, and Will Huff shared the Emmy for Outstanding Makeup for a Series (Non-Prosthetic).