Too much colour clouds the issues;Media Watch;FE Focus

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Laurence Alster wonders if there is any mileage left in the buddy movie, after watching the BBC's serial on British racism

IT'S the very simplicity of the black and white buddy movie that has made it a Hollywood staple. Two men (often cops, though not always), one black, the other white, are compelled to work together. Initially, they loathe each other. Eventually, hostility is replaced with respect, and ultimately love (of a sort).

From In the Heat of the Night through Lethal Weapon to Seven, the formula has brought good business. The first part of Black and White, a three-programme undercover exploration of racism in contemporary Britain, sometimes looked too buddyish to be true.

This is a shame given that this is the sort of programme extensively used as a resource in media and social studies.

Brought together for the purpose from different parts of the country, Kev (who is black) and Rob (white) used hidden cameras to investigate the extent of racism in Leeds, starting with the city's hotels.

Their findings were depressing. Rob is offered accommodation at four hotels where Kev has earlier been told there are no vacancies. True, the other 15 hotels in the survey show no such preference; but this does not stop Kev feeling as wounded as one would when so blatantly discriminated against.

Ask black or Asian students - or, for that matter, adults - about their own emotions at such times, and many will recall seeking shelter in their own communities. The nearest thing to home for Kev in Leeds is Chapeltown, the district with the highest concentration of blacks. Here, though, Rob soon becomes The Outsider One incident in particular, not seen by the audience but recalled to camera by Rob, seems to prove this. Queuing at a takeaway, Rob is ordered by some black youths to summon a taxi on his mobile phone. Using a mock-Caribbean accent, he declines.

The friction that develops between the two men over this is caught on camera. Furious, Ken accuses Rob of stereotyping blacks, a charge he denies. Things turn nasty, each man accusing the other of intolerance and hyper-sensitivity. Eventually they call a truce, though not before nearly coming to blows.

Sounds familiar? The odd couple who begin by detesting each other is Hollywood's favourite metaphor for a society riven by inter-ethnic aggression. It's a neat narrative device, ideal for a drama that needs a feelgood finale after 90 minutes or so. But however close to drama television documentary might genuinely come, it should avoid anything with even the merest whiff of manufacture - especially after recent scandals over rigged documentaries.

Ken and Rob's altercation over the takeaway incident might have been genuine. But there was rather too much of, say, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover about the row for it to have to have done the programme much good at all. There is a real need for serious television investigation of race hatred in a society where boys like Stephen Lawrence are murdered in the street without anyone being brought to book. Don't expect too much from Black and White - except, perhaps, Ebony and Ivory played over the end credits of the final programme.

Black and White, February 24. BBC1, 11.10-11.45pm

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