'Black. White.' and Shades of Gray on FX Cutting edge makeup techniques allow two American families... one black, one white... to trade races for a new reality show that debuts this week on cable TV's FX. Neal Conan talks to the participants about what they learned.
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'Black. White.' and Shades of Gray on FX

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'Black. White.' and Shades of Gray on FX

'Black. White.' and Shades of Gray on FX

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From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

For a new reality television program, two families trade races.

Ms. RENEE SPARKS (African-American Wife, Black. White.): My name is Renee, and I'm 37 years old, and I'm about to become a white woman.

Mr. NICK SPARKS (African-American Son, Black. White.): My name is Nick, and I'm become a white person.

Ms. SPARKS: To me, I feel like white people, their lives are so easy, so I just want to see what is it gonna be like to have an easy life, so that's what I was thinking.

CONAN: Black. White. follows the interaction within and between the families as they cross America's racial divide. We'll talk with two of the participants about what they learned walking a mile in another man's skin. Plus the late Kirby Puckett, a baseball player of rare skill who will be remembered even more for the joy he brought to the game. It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

(Soundbite of music)


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow night, a new reality TV show called Black. White. debuts on the FX cable network. Two families, one black, one white, move in together for six weeks, and with the help of remarkable, cutting-edge makeup they trade races. They go out into each other's worlds to learn what it's like in someone else's skin.

In one scene, the black mother becomes white and joins a focus group of white people to talk about race relations. In another, the white daughter becomes black and attends a poetry workshop with other young black people, and in this scene, the two fathers take a stroll through an upscale shopping district in Beverly Hills. The white father goes as a black man, the black father goes as himself. Afterwards, they talk about what they saw.

Mr. BRUNO MARCOTULLI (White Father, Black. White.): You know what I think? I think from your reaction today, you're lookin' for it.

Mr. BRIAN SPARKS (Black Father, Black. White.): I'm not lookin' for it. You know it's snubbing. Snubbing (unintelligible).

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I get snubbed now, too. But you and I, this evening, saw the same things. I saw one thing. You saw another. When a family is covering the entire sidewalk and they move over so that we can get by, you see that as them getting out of the way because you're black. You're lookin' for somethin' that I think isn't there.

Mr. SPARKS: You're thinking that everything is OK, and it's not.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: If you come into a place and you've got this resentment and...

Mr. SPARKS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...this expectation...

Mr. SPARKS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...of prejudice...

Mr. SPARKS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...it's gonna find you. If you go in with an open heart and love and, and you know, you can laugh...

Mr. SPARKS: (unintelligible)

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...but my life is I get joy because I put joy out.

Mr. SPARKS: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I don't get, you know, suspicion because I'm not lookin' for it. I'm not comin' at it with a chip on my shoulder and, uh, and that's what I get back from the world.

CONAN: That was Bruno Marcotulli, a 47-year-old white teacher from Santa Monica, and Brian Sparks, a 41-year-old African-American computer network specialist from Atlanta. In a moment, they'll join us to talk about their experiences.

Later in the program, we'll remember baseball great Kirby Puckett, dead of a stroke at the age of 45, but first, Black. White. If you have questions about what it was like to cross the racial divide, what these two men may have learned or what we could learn from watching them, give us a phone call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And joining us now from our bureau in New York are Brian Sparks and Bruno Marcotulli. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. MARCOTULLI (Reality show participant): Hi, Neal.

Mr. SPARKS (Reality show participant): Thank you for having us.

CONAN: It must have been interesting after you guys lived together for six weeks last summer and now joining together on this publicity tour, together again.

Mr. SPARKS: Together again.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Yeah. Well, we've seen actually a lot of each other through this, um, public relations situation before the show airing.

CONAN: Mmm. Now tell us about that first moment of seeing yourself as the other, if you will. What was it like? Brian, you first, what was it like to suddenly see yourself as a black man? As a white man, rather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPARKS: Very different, very different, to come out and see how white I looked in the makeup. It was a great experience but very different.

CONAN: Very, was it convincing? Did you convince yourself?

Mr. SPARKS: I was, it was very convincing. I, I, you know, at one time, I was not around a mirror and walked past a mirror and it startled me it looked so white, I looked so white.

(Soundbite of laugh)

CONAN: Mm hmm. Bruno, did you have the same reaction?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I ran to a mirror and made friends with my new companion. No, it was a lot of fun to see me with a whole new face, the makeup was incredible, and truly transformed me, completely.

CONAN: Mmm. Now there was a lot of screening. You guys had, I guess, to be screened to go through this. What did you go in expecting, Brian?

Mr. SPARKS: I went in expecting just that racism was like in a corporate level as opposed to prevalent in society as I later found out that it was. So just, just pretty much that.

CONAN: And Bruno?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: What did I expect when coming into the project?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Really had no idea what to expect. I just knew that it was a provocative conversation.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: And I was thrilled to be a part of it.

CONAN: And, but clearly, as we heard from that clip, you had some expectations about, that you were gonna see things, that you hoped to see things that weren't there.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Who are you speaking to?

CONAN: To you.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I hoped, I hoped to see things that weren't there?

CONAN: Or maybe I phrased that inelegantly and almost certainly did. That you were convinced that other people were seeing things that weren't there, and that in a sense, by becoming black, you could prove it.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: OK, I'm not sure I agree with that. Let me preface what I'm gonna say by saying that there, obviously, has been, is currently, there is racism in the world, and there will be.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I don't think it'll ever go away. But the point I was making from that clip that you took is I think a great deal of what we see in life, our perceptions, are based on what we expect to see, and I'm a big believer in that, not to get, negate racism, but you get back from the world what you put out.

When I go outside and I feel lousy about myself, I get a different reaction from everyone that I meet than I do when I feel great about myself. So it really, there is some validity to the, in my mind, to you do get out, get back from the world what you put out.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And Brian, I know that your viewpoint is different.

Mr. SPARKS: It's very different. What I think that Bruno failed to realize that as, he can go out on his lousiest day white and the world is still receptive to him, more receptive to him than if, as if I went on my best day black, and I think that that's what he's not seeing there.

CONAN: Hmm. Some of the most telling points in the film are little ones. Brian, you, for example, go in as a white man to buy some golf shoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And, well, tell us a little bit about that experience.

Mr. SPARKS: That was a great experience. You know, it was my first day shopping as a white guy, of course. I go in to buy some golf shoes, and the guy literally takes his shoe, opens the shoe, unlaces it, grabs my foot, puts a shoe horn in the back of the shoe, and slides my foot into the, into the shoe. So it was a great feeling, it was a very great experience. I've never had that shopping as a black guy.

CONAN: Mm hmm.



Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...nor have I. I've never had anyone put my foot into a shoe, and I'm white.

CONAN: Well, I guess those are coming from different points of view, but even walking down the street, as we saw you guys relate in that scene from the film, you saw different things. Wouldn't that be inevitable because of the different backgrounds you come from?

Mr. SPARKS: It would be. You know, but the whole thing is, the whole part of the project was for him to be receptive to it and not to try to block everything, you know. He, if you're walking down the street and you are trying to see it from the black perspective and you still have your white perspective underneath the black makeup, then what good are you doing?

CONAN: Hmm. Let me ask you both. This was like a six-week intense experience. What did you tell your families, your friends back in Atlanta, Brian Sparks, that you were doing?

Mr. SPARKS: I just told them that I was doing a documentary about race. We could say that much, but we really couldn't go into detail so, you know, they respected my wishes that once I said that, you know, I had like a $6 million lawsuit over my head saying that I could not talk about the project...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. SPARKS: ...so they respected the wishes on that and just waited to see what the turnout would be.

CONAN: And Bruno Marcotulli, this was in your hometown, Los Angeles.


CONAN: Yeah. So you might have run into some of your friends and family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARCOTULLI: At one time I saw Rose's sister on the street, and I spoke to her, and she did not know who I was, but Neal, I'd like to just comment on the last comment that Brian made...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...where I was not receptive to...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: ...the black experience. The show is Black. White., and I believe that Brian never even considered the white point of view and that there is racism from black to white as well, and it doesn't seem to be brought out in all the interviews that we're doing. It's not about the black perspective. It's about both ways, and that isn't being addressed and should be.

CONAN: Brian.

Mr. SPARKS: Well, Bruno, did you share any of your perspective from when you were black or even when you went out white that blacks have done to you? Have you shared any of that? If you don't share then the world is not going to know.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I don't understand.

Mr. SPARKS: I shared my experiences. I came if I felt racism or, if you know, by the guy in the bar saying that he wanted his neighborhood to be, to stay white; Or the guy saying that hey, my parents taught me to wash my hands. If you guys would come back and share those thoughts and sentiments that you had on that, um, we would have a different perspective, but I...

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I'd be glad to, I've never in my life, any white person I've know have ever said, any of those things. They chose very carefully two people, they've interviewed many more than those two people. But those are the two clips, obviously, to create controversy. And those are the ones they chose to have on the show.

But I've never been around white people that wipe their hands after shaking black people's hands or felt that their neighborhood should not--I live in Los Angeles and it's a very diverse community. And that's the community I have spent my 47 years in.

Mr. SPARKS: Well, let me ask you, let me respond to this then. Rose went out into the world as a black girl, and she went in Santa Monica where you guys currently reside, and went to a store that she frequents as a white girl, asked for an application and they denied her an application.

NEAL CONAN, host: Job application yeah.

Mr. SPARKS: Job application. Carmen, you and Carmen went to a cowboy bar black. And Carmen asked for a cup of coffee and they told her she could not have coffee unless she left a credit card. Now what do you feel about that? Does that, how's your perception on that? And Carmen, underneath the black makeup is white. So I'm quite sure she went out with a very chipper attitude since she says, what you put out...

NEAL CONAN host: Mm hmmm.

Mr. SPARKS: ... you get back. Is she, did she put out, did she ask for the coffee negatively, did Rose ask for the application negatively for them to get that kind of feedback? So, you know, what would you say to that?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I'd say I never deny that racism exists.

NEAL CONAN, host: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation; 800-989-8255; e-mail is TALK@NPR.ORG.

And we'll start with David; David's calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.


Mr. SPARKS: Hi, David.

DAVID: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: The, I'm a 44-year-old African American, I've lived in, mostly Mid-Western, predominately white communities and I do, there's no doubt that racism exists today. I've experienced through my life a lot of different forms of racism.

But I have to agree with Bruno that regardless of the state of America, that there is so much racism, but African Americans, at least for myself, it's unhealthy for me to go through life--you know, to sort of, you know, to have a feeling that, you know, racism is everywhere.

I try to, to a lot of extent, to try to be as positive as I can. And I do certainly do--or confront racism if I see it, but I try to be as positive as I can, and also sometimes I ignore racism. But I guess what I'm saying, it's just unhealthy for African Americans to sort of feel like that, that they have to fight racism at every corner or that it exists out there to the point that it has to change our way that we deal with people in the community.

CONAN: I'm going to get a response from you both, but we're up against the break, so, David can you stay on the line with us?


CONAN: All right I'll put you on hold and we'll get a response from both Bruno Marcotulli and Brian Sparks when we come back from a short break.

We're talking about the new FX series Black. White. Coming up, we'll also be joined by a man who went through the same experience for a BBC series years ago. And we'll talk with Black. White. executive producer Matt Alvarez.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan; it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about a new FX series called Black. White, two families trade races and experience life in each other's skins. If you have questions about what it was like, what they learned give us a call: 800-989-8255; e-mail us TALK@NPR.org.

If you'd like to see photos of the families in the FX series Black. White., you can visit our Web site at NPR.ORG and follow the links to TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are the two fathers of the families: Bruno Marcotulli and Brian Sparks. And when we went to the break David was on the line with us from Phoenix, Arizona, talking about, well in a sense he was saying that Bruno he though had a point.

I guess, Brian, the first response from you.

Mr. SPARKS: My response would be to David's comments is that, you know, first I don't go though life, you know, wondering about racism, or letting it hinder me. Yeah I knew coming up that I had to be bigger, faster, stronger, better. So I look at it as a positive, okay. Now, I'm better, stronger and faster.

But it was just for the project, pretty much that we were pointing it out, so poignantly, do Bruno can understand what we go through on a daily. So it would never hinder me in my life, and I've put out a very positive attitude in everything I do in life. But life doesn't always turn back the positivity that I put into it.

CONAN: Mm hmmm and, Bruno.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Life doesn't turn out the way anybody wants it. In a nutshell, whoever you are, whatever skin color you have, whatever your predicament in life is, you have two options. One is to look at life with the brightest and most positive attitude and empower yourself, or be angry and negative and look for things so that you can excuse your, blame your problems on something else. And that is disempowering and stagnating. So in a nutshell, again there is racism, but a lot has to do with how you approach life.

CONAN: David, I wonder what you think.

DAVID: Well, you know, I guess I agree with both men--but I do feel like that in Bruno's tone that there is a certain level of denial that somehow he's not responsible for it. And, to a certain extent, that he's willing to dismiss, you know, the things that maybe he knows goes on because he's not somehow responsible.

But I think for most African Americans, we believe that that's part of the problem: that so often people say, hey, I'm not prejudice. And so for they figured that, you know, life should be, you know, just as peachy and rosy as it is for me. But I think that, you know, trying to, I think this exercises, hopefully was the ideal of putting yourself in someone else's shoes. And I, I don't think he's done that, I don't think Bruno's done that.


DAVID: I think he's still sort of you know looking at it from his perspective.

CONAN: Might want to take a look at the documentary before you make that judgment anyway, David. But Thank you very much for the phone call, we appreciate it.

DAVID: Okay.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Thanks, David.

Mr. SPARKS: Thanks, David.

CONAN: In 2002, the BBC produced a documentary, much along the lines of Black. White., it was called Trading Races: a White man and a Black man with the help of make up, prosthetics change skin color.

One of them was Andrew Daniel, a black hairdresser from London. As part of his experience as a white man Daniel marched with The National Front, a group known for it's fierce opposition to immigration, and Britain's multicultural policies.

Andrew Daniel joins us now from the studies of the BBC in London; and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. ANDREW DANIEL, (Participant, Trading Races BBC 2, 2002): Thank you, it's nice to be invited.

CONAN: What made you decided to do this?

Mr. DANIEL: Um, I've always been interested in racial balances and power balances, and that kind of stuff, for many, many years. And the opportunity came, and I wanted just to, to reinforce some of my own ideas, and to see, to test my own prejudgments, and to see if it is the way I perceive it to be.

CONAN: And how did it turn out?

Mr. DANIEL: It, there were many different opportunities, but several times, I've gone back to, one of your guests was talking about...

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

Mr. DANIEL: I went into a few situations with pre expectations, and I was, I was shocked to find that it wasn't like that, I went, I did the same thing for example as the white character, first. Went into situations, which I thought would be racist and be, you know, that kind of vibe.

I then went back to the same scenario three months later as myself, met the same group of people and they were equally as nice to me as they were, as I was a white person. And I thought they were going to be negative towards me.

CONAN: So in a way did you find out that it was, mattered more about individuals than about races?

Mr. DANIEL: There were different things, there, some of the points exactly as you say, it was about individual characters, and how your energy is as a person. But then, but it did also reconfirm--there is definitely racism out there, and is very, we are treated differently. And they are very subtle, very, very subtle things that happen that a lot of...

CONAN: Give me a for instance.

Mr. DANIEL: For instance, I'm black and I went white. The other chap was white and he went black.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

Mr. DANIEL: And there's an old thing in London that, when you go to shops you get served by somebody, they put the change, when you're black you find that they rarely put the change back into your hand and give you eye contact. And I'm used to this. This is something I've grown up with. And people, white people, if you say that to white people, they'll say that, don't be silly.

This chap went black and he went to his local shop that he's gone to for years and years and the woman, who's really lovely, it's a little old lady, beautiful. He went there, purchased something. As a black chap, she slammed it on the table, gave him no eye contact and he was devastated. It was the first time he realized there were subtle little difference between the races and how you're treated. And how that can build up in your mind and give you that inferiority complex.

CONAN: Mm hmmm. And what...

Mr. DANIEL: And it's very subtle things.

CONAN: Speaking of unsubtle things, what was it like to march as a white man with the National front?

Mr. DANIEL: Well that just confirmed everything. Well, what it did, it was excellent actually because it made me not dislike them anymore. Because I went in there thinking this group of people were quite intelligent and organized and had their thing together. And as you're walking amongst them, made me feel sorry for them, made me actually feel pity for them. Because you hear their conversations and, the level of their IQ, you know the things they spoke about, how they spoke about it and they're reasoning.

I actually left that march not hating the National Front. I was actually sympathetic and thought they needed to be educated and they needed to go back to school and learn some thing.

CONAN: I know you've been to the United States before, to discuss your experiences during Trading Races. Do you find that there's a difference in racial politics in this country compared with the UK?

Mr. DANIEL: Definitely, definitely, and I think that's the historical thing.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DANIEL: Because you know, because of slavery actually in America and, you've got a history there, there's actually in America. Blacks have been there for a long time, under different circumstances and the circumstances change over generations. And for the whites, I think they've found it harder to embrace that change.

Where in England most African/Caribbean people here now came from the 1950s and 1960s, and they came--so it's a different relationship. That long-term history's not there. I think that's what makes a difference.

CONAN: You've had, now four years to reflect on this experiences, uh, did Trading Races affect your life?

Mr. DANIEL: Yeah, definitely, it made me more objective, made me more less likely to judge other people en masse, and, I used to, I think not racist; but, you know as we all are, we do judge groups of people sometimes, self-consciously.

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

Mr. DANIEL: And, I've actually consciously fought against that now. And I no longer speak in generals, I try to keep it down to individuals.

CONAN: Andrew Daniel, thanks very much for joining us today, we appreciate your time.

Mr. DANIEL: Oh it's my pleasure, thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Daniel was a participant in the BBC series Trading Races, and he joined us from the BBC studios in London.

And, Bruno, and, Brian, as we bring you back in from our bureau in New York, did you get a chance to see any of that series before you guys started out?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I didn't.

Mr. SPARKS: I didn't either.

CONAN: Might have been instructed, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What, I also have to ask, as I understand getting the make-up on was something of an ordeal.

Mr. SPARKS: About a four, for me about a four, four-and-a-half-hour process.

CONAN: Mm hmmm. And getting it off isn't easy either.

Mr. SPARKS: That was about a 45-minute process.

CONAN: Mm hmmm, and I assume just about the same for you Bruno?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: That's correct.

CONAN: Yeah, you must have gotten to know the make-up artists pretty well?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: They were great. I had a lot of fun with the make-up artists.

CONAN: And I understand they followed you in a van where you, whenever you were out in case the wig slipped or something?


CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tracy and Tracy's with us from North Augusta in South Carolina.

TRACY (Caller): Yes, how you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

TRACY: I just wanted to say that, you know, I've seen parts of this, the promo to the show. And I just, I don't think that you can just step into some--another color skin for a little while and really encompass what it is to be that individual, whatever color you are.

Because there are a lot of things that we inherit, good and bad, being black and being white, you know. For instance, I was watching a show once and they were talking about during, during slavery that how when the families were separated, that, how the family, when another slave came, encountered another slave child, then they would take them on as theirs. And they would say this is my son or my daughter.

And then I thought about it and I was like, you know, maybe even years later, maybe that's why when black people when we see each other, sometimes we do say, you know, hey what's, you know, it's like, hey brother...

CONAN: Mm hmmm.

TRACY: We have a, we feel a kinship to each other because--even though we are, been in this land a while, sometimes we still feel like we are in a foreign land, you know.

CONAN: Yeah.

TRACY: Or not that we're in a foreign land, but we're foreign to our surroundings.

CONAN: That old line, stranger in a strange land. Let me, let me ask you both, can you get at least a glimpse of an idea of what it's like to be the other race? Bruno, you first:

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Absolutely. And the color, that was a great point. I was in, excuse me, black make-up for five weeks. And truly, I mean, what do I know about being a black man.

TRACY: Exactly.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: It's ridiculous For me to, to claim that I know what it is to be a black man.

Mr. SPARKS: Yeah we weren't trying to, you know, put out there, that you're going to know exactly how it is to, you know, be in the other walk of life, the other skin. We were just pretty much touching on a glimpse of what it's like. You know, I can never be white because I'm black. He can never be black because he's white, but it was just to get a glimpse or a taste of what the other races go through.

TRACY: Actually I heard one of the characters say she wanted to--when she was being white she wanted to feel like what it would be to have an easy life for awhile. I don't think that white people or black people have an easy life. I do think that racism makes some things interact different in our lives and people need to acknowledge the racism and not necessarily think that oh white people have it so much easier and black people have it this way.

Just because I'm black I should be able to dance good or play basketball and just because you're white you ought to be able to do whatever it is white people are supposed to be good at doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRACY: True, you know. So, you know, because I'm black and I can't dance. I don't dance. So, that's one thing you won't catch me trying to do. And, you know, so I think that it was a show and when you take a few minutes of something you can't really grasp what it's all about. And I don't feel the white guy, I don't feel like, you know, some of the things that he did not recognize or acknowledge I don't feel like he needed, you know, I don't feel bad toward him about it.

The same thing for the black guy, but it would've been good if both could have approached it trying to find out what it would be like, you know, to, you know, not saying oh see what I go through, but try to encompass maybe a little bit more what it may like that culture. Because...

CONAN: Again, Tracy I suggest you watch the TV show itself to find out a little bit more about what they actually found out.

TRACY: I sure will.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: But he makes a great point and, you know, I've got to say--this is Bruno by the way, coming away from the show much more aware of the fact that both sides really have to take that moment to at least to consider what it is to walk in the other's shoes no matter how difficult it may be, to just try to go there and definitely have that compassion.

CONAN: Tracy thanks very much for the call.

TRACY: Thank you.

CONAN: Our guests are Bruno Marcotulli and Brian Sparks. They are the stars, two of the stars of the new FX series Black. White., which debuts tomorrow night and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

Let's bring another person into the conversation. Joining us now from his office in Los Angeles is Matt Alvarez, executive producer of Black. White. and it's good to have you on the program today.

Mr. MATT ALVAREZ (Executive producer, Black. White.): Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And how did you choose who the participants would be?

Mr. ALVAREZ: Well, you know we were kind of brought into the show, John Landgraf, you know, from FX had kind of come up with the idea of doing a show that explored, you know, kind of the territory that this show eventually explored and he then brought it to R.J. Cutler who's, you know, one of the other executive producers on the show.

CONAN: Documentary director of the War Room among other things.

Mr. ALVAREZ: Award winning, you know, documentarian. And then they came to us, now they had already done a little, you know, some casting and had explored, you know, some of the makeup by the time they came to us with this idea and said hey here's the show that we want to do, would you guys like to be a part of it. And we were really excited about it. At that point, you know, both families were already chosen and we just kind of rolled with who was already there. But it was a long casting process.

I mean, saw thousands of families, you know, took quite a period of time, worked with the makeup artist, captive audience, and Brian Sipe over there in doing some of the casting just to, you know, really make sure that we're dealing with people who had, you know, skin tones and what not that would actually, you know, make the transformation.

CONAN: They had to be able to look good in the other races colors.

Mr. ALVAREZ: That's right.

CONAN: Yeah. Now, some of the scenes are obviously filmed with hidden cameras, scenes of shopping in various malls and going for that job application for example. Others are not and, for example, Brian as a white man gets a job as a bartender, there's a full camera crew in there. How were those scenes arranged?

Mr. ALVAREZ: I mean, you know, we kind of went into the situation telling, you know, and talked with different, you know, shop owners and whatnot and told them that we were, you know, really doing a documentary on, you know, on people moving to Los Angeles and their new experiences in this city. So, we kind of went into that way, you know, to try and get as real of a response from people as we could.

CONAN: And when Rose goes into a poetry class made up of African American kids as I understand it the two people who run the class did know what was going on.

Mr. ALVAREZ: Yeah. We had, we definitely had them in as part of the loop and, you know, kind of, you know, they were very helpful to us in terms of integrating into, you know, the community and for Rose integrating into this class and being very supportive of her in her endeavors.

CONAN: Yeah, but during the TV show we're not told that they know. It looks like she's putting it over on them too.

Mr. ALVAREZ: Well, you know, we have, you know, a lot of footage, you know, we shot a lot of things and, you know, we had to make conscious decisions on what to show. We have, you know, over 2400 hours worth of footage. And, you know, in this show we aren't claiming this is a documentary, you know, documentary, you know. What we're trying to show, though, is an accurate portrayal of what these people went through as they were made up, you know, as these other individuals. So I think the show definitely reflects a very accurate portrayal of what their experiences were.

CONAN: Mm hmm. You guys have now seen the show, Bruno and Brian, do you think it's an accurate reflection of what you went through?

Mr. SPARKS: I think it's very accurate.

CONAN: And Bruno?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Yes, for the most part it is accurate. There are some things that were left out. They had to build characters and as much as they could define those characters to give each character an arc, but for the most part it was true to form.

CONAN: And you went into this agreeing to some form of manipulation, I guess. Did you feel unduly manipulated?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: No, no, no. I understand that, you know, it's show business, and like I say, for the most part it is truthful. So, I understand the nature of the beast.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. SPARKS: I felt it captured my views and thoughts.

CONAN: And one other question just before we go to the break to you two, during the project were you looking at the footage that was being shot during the project?



CONAN: so you didn't see any of this until afterwards?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Exactly.

Mr. SPARKS: That's correct.

CONAN: Ok, stay with us. We're going to take a short break and come back with more of your calls. Our guests are Bruno Marcotulli and Brian Sparks. Also with us Matt Alvarez, who's the executive producer of Black. White. The series debuts tomorrow night on FX, the cable TV network. If you'd like to join the conversation give us a call, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Also when we return we'll remember Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today we'll talk about Black. White., a controversial new show that attempts to explore the complexities of race relations through reality television. The series allowed two families to trade races using state-of-the-art makeup effects. In one scene Brian Sparks, and African American man, is made up as white man and gets a job as a bartender at a sports bar and a largely all white enclave.

(Soundbite of TV show Black. White.)

Mr. SPARKS: Today will be the first day that I work at Leo's bar. It's a little all-white bar. There's a bartender. It's cool, I'm being a fly on the wall, get to see my day in white.

You want to establish a rapport with all these guys. If you take care of them, they're going to take care of you.

I have to speak proper grammar or as the black community says I have to speak white.

Ok, I'm going to have to watch you. You must be a real regular right here.

Then I got into some conversation with a guy, it was so easy because they thought I was so white up in there. I just asked them a simple question, what is the neighborhood like?

Unidentified Male #2: Yeah, it's pretty much a white area. We don't have any problems.

Mr. SPARKS: Oh, ok. Fit right in.

Unidentified Male #2: I grew up in this neighborhood and this is one of the last somewhat unaffected bastions of middle class Caucasian America inside Los Angeles.

Mr. SPARKS: (Unintelligible), ok.

Unidentified Male #2: Most of the cities around this area changed significantly. This is the one that's almost like it's been insulated for some reason.

Mr. SPARKS: Wow. I kind of got that feeling when I came through the neighborhood.

Unidentified Male #2: And the neighborhood wants to stay that way.

Mr. SPARKS: Exactly.

Unidentified Male #2: They don't want a lot of change. They don't want a lot of building. They don't want a lot of integration, because they've seen what's happened in the peripheral communities.

Mr. SPARKS: Oh, ok.

Unidentified Male #2: And it's taken the quality of life down.

CONAN: That--Brian Sparks from the program Black. White. Also with us still is Bruno Marcotulli who plays the, who is the white father in the program. I keep getting confused by these things in reality TV. Also executive producer Matt Alvarez. If you'd like to join us our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

And here's an email question for you Matt Alvarez from Poncho in Kansas City. Do you believe that with the recent tidal wave of staged reality shows on the air that this program will be seen as only staged entertainment as opposed to a learning experience?

Mr. ALVAREZ: Well, you know, obviously you always have those concerns. You know, we tried to, you know, kind of position the show and to market the show so that people would, you know, see that there's no prize at the end of the tunnel. There's none of those things that you typically see in these reality shows. So that we, you know, tried to set ours apart from, you know, the other ones out there. And, you know, I think that, you know, once people have started having dialogue they'll see that it's a little bit different.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Tom's with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

TOM (Caller): That's correct.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TOM: Well, I was just making a point--sounds like a great show by the way, I'm looking forward to seeing it. I work for an African American owned company and I'm Caucasian myself, white guy, and when I first started working for them about four years ago and it's actually a media company, and the one thing I found when I started working for them is that I--working for the company was that I really had to start--I had to make it a point to fit in.

If I wanted to be a part of the company, if I wanted to get along with everybody I wasn't going to be automatically accepted. And I think that that's a lot of the situations. It's more of a cultural thing, not necessarily black, or white, or Hispanic, or whatever, but it's a very cultural thing that if you aren't aware of it, if it's something that you don't feel like you belong, that that can be a big stigma.

CONAN: Brian, let me ask you about that. It's a point that members of your family make repeatedly in the film that it's the constant pressure of trying to be--of being black and trying to fit in with a majority white society.

Mr. SPARKS: That's correct. You know, blacks everyday that we have to fit into white society, because this is white America and so it's, you know, it's something that we have to have grown to do daily. So, it's, you know, it's accepted already for us in America. We know that we have to fit in, you know, because of that, so.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Bruno, I wondered about your take on this?

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Neal, I'm the son of an immigrant who came from Italy. And growing up, I was around a dinner table with people from all over the world. They came from America, and had to adjust to the American way of life, not the white way of life, and so I just come from a different perspective on that.

Mr. SPARKS: Well, let me shed a little light on Bruno's perspective of that. Bruno is the son of an immigrant, but the day that his parents stepped into America, they had more rights than my parents, who was born here. And that's the big difference.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Wow, that's quite a statement Brian. Considering you...

Mr. SPARKS: It's true.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Well, back it up with something.

Mr. SPARKS: Well, when your parents came here, there was not a water fountain that said, colored, whites, and immigrants. There was either, you were either, you either colored, you drinked out of the colored water fountain, if you were white, you drink out of the white. If you were white, you could drink out of it, whether you were an immigrant or whatever. There was not a restaurant where whites and immigrants or blacks and immigrants had to go in the back door. If you were white, you went in the front door, whether you were an immigrant or not. So when he got here, he had already had, he already the status of being white to fit into white culture. So, he already had a leg up on society over the black, black, race.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: No, no! He came to New York, and there were no separate bathrooms and no separate water fountains. And then he moved to California with my mother, to Los Angeles, and there were no white water fountains and there were no, you know, whatever you just said. And he didn't speak English, and he had five jobs and he worked his ass off, and he became a success. And he never used all the hurdles all that he had to jump over as excuses. And that forms my opinion on life.

Mr. SPARKS: The bottom line, when he came here, he came here, no matter where he came from, he came here white. So, when he, the minute he stepped into the country...

Mr. MARCOTULLI: He as Italian--is that white too? Is every, every, you know, he was brown, what's that?

Mr. SPARKS: Once he get into America, he was white.

CONAN: I'm tempted to rush in here, and ask if you two can't just get along?

TOM: One of the, yeah, I mean, one of the fundamental differences though, is, you know, Bruno, your father came over here, I would assume, now I don't know much about your father, but my assumption would be that he came over here willingly to make a better life for himself, whereas the descendents of Brian's family, not his parents per se, but you know, when his family did come over here to the United States, they were brought over here unwillingly.

CONAN: His ancestors, not his descendents, but we get your point.

TOM: I'm sorry, yeah, his ancestors.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much...

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I don't know about Brian's parents. Brian, did you ancestors come over here unwillingly?

Mr. SPARKS: My parents are black, so the ancestry, yes, you know, back in great-grandparents, slavery days, of course, yeah, they would be the, born here brought here, originally brought here from, you know, because to start out...

Mr. MARCOTULLI: I would imagine a lot of blacks come to America, the land of opportunity, quite willingly.

CONAN: And in increasing percentage. But...

TOM: Definitely an increasing percentage.

CONAN: ...yep, yep. Let's get another caller on the line before we have to go. And let's go to John. John's calling from Roseville, in California.

JOHN (Caller): Yes. Hello, all.


Mr. SPARKS: Hello.

JOHN: What a wonderful subject. And I'm so happy to see this is becoming out in the forefront.

You know, I think that there are those people that are fixated on color. I personally am a lighter pigmented human being, but I take, I am, it's almost like sometimes I feel ashamed to be white, classified white. You know, I think when society becomes aware of how human nature is so completely influenced our past and present interracial relations, that society will be able to realize that no one race is to blame for what ails another race. Only then will society be able to understand that racial disparity is a product of human nature, and was absolutely unavoidable. Now I'm not, I must admit that there were indiscretions suffered by the black people...

CONAN: Indiscretions?

Mr. SPARKS: Indiscretions?

JOHN: I mean, I mean, suffering, plain and simple, just ignorance that the white man did to the black men. There's, that's past. Today, let's get beyond it.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much for the call.

Mr. SPARKS: Wait, can I respond to John?

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. SPARKS: Can I respond to John?

JOHN: Minority, majority class.

Mr. SPARKS: John, how can we really get past, I mean, of course, we would like to move on and get past, but the things that I think America is forgetting realize is that black, from black to black, generation after generation, nothing has been passed on. From white to white, from slavery to the power, the money, that's comes from generation to generation. So, the things that my ancestry had to go through to, just passed on nothing. But the white generation, since the black built the America on their back, everything has passed on through white. So, how are we to get passed and just get over?

We do need to heal, I will agree to that. But it, the biggest thing we need to realize, that we're all different. We're all different, and yet we're all the same. Yes, I'm black, yes Bruno is white, but we're all the same.

CONAN: And I think we're going to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us today.

JOHN: Thank you.

Mr. SPARKS: Thank you, Neal.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: Thank you.

CONAN: Bruno Marcotulli and Brian Sparks are participants in the program Black. White. that airs tomorrow night, beginning tomorrow night, on the FX network. We also spoke with Matt Alvarez, who is executive producer on the program, along with Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler.

I'm Neal Conan, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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