Black Man Reflects on Being White for Five Weeks
Photo Credit: Robert Zuckerman
Photo Credit: Robert Zuckerman
41 year-old Brian Sparks was a contractor before he and his wife, Renee, and their 17 year-old son, Nick, agreed to appear on FX's Black White. And now that the show is over, he and his family have returned to Georgia, where he's back at his former profession, despite all the sudden attention which comes from being on a hit TV program.
This landmark reality series, in which a black family and white family swapped skin colors while living under the same roof for five weeks, enjoyed the highest ratings ever for the premiere of any unscripted cable show. Over the course of the just-completed season, Brian frequently locked horns with Bruno, the white father, a man who got a lot of mileage out of his stubborn refusal to acknowledge that racism exists.
Besides the tensions seen on the screen, the show had its share of off-screen controversy, when it came out that the members of the white family had three different last names, and that two of them were actors. Regardless, I found Black White to be fascinating, which is why I tracked Brian down to find out how the experience had affected him.
KW: Hi Brian, I loved the show and I'm not too proud to admit that I got a little misty-eyed at the end of the last episode.
BS: I appreciate it.
KW: What has been the effect of the show on you?
BS: It's been strange. I learned a lot during the making of the show. And then going back and actually watching it, I picked up some of the things I didn't know about, because I didn't participate in all of the events with others in the house. So, I had to sit back and watch them unfold.
KW: What made it strange?
BS: That I had a newfound respect for some, that I felt the same way about others, and that some needed a great learning process to grow more.
KW: Obviously, to distill five weeks worth of taping down to six hours, a lot of footage had to hit the cutting room floor. Did you feel that FX edited the show fairly?
BS: I think they captured me very accurately. I was very impressed with the editing. Of course, you always feel they could've pit more in, but given the time frame, and all the footage they went through, I think they did a great job at capturing what I wanted to project. I know I can't speak for everyone, but I think they were fair to everybody comparing what I saw in the house and in the activities I did share with others to what I saw on screen.
KW: Do you think living under the same roof with the Wurgels made a difference?
BS: As you could see, a lot of the heated arguments and blow-ups occurred inside the house while we were discussing things. So, yeah, if we had stayed in separate houses, I think there would have been a slightly different outcome to the show.
KW: how many hours a day did they have the cameras running? And did they use cameramen or tiny unobtrusive cameras?
BS: Cameramen. And the cameras ran from the time we woke up, until the time we went to bed.
KW: What was it like having cameras following you all the time?
BS: After the first week, you kind of forget they’re their, and just go about your daily business.
KW: Since doing the show, have you and your wife, Renee, returned to Atlanta and gone back to your previous jobs?
KW: What is it like to be working as a contractor, and then suddenly have a hit TV show?
BS: [Laughs] It's great, but there's an asterisk by it, because everywhere you go, you always run into people who say, ’Hey, you're the guy from Black White,’ or ’I saw you on Oprah.’ So, every day, you have to stop, or pause to talk about the experience. So, it's back to business as usual, but with a great feeling.
KW: Are you still in touch with Bruno, Carmen and Rose?
BS: No, though we did put in a call to Rose last night after the final episode aired. At the end of the message we left on her answering machine, we told her to tell Bruno and Carmen that we said ’Hello.’
KW: Does that mean you came away feeling closer to Rose than to her parents, Bruno or Carmen?
BS: Much more close to Rose than the parents, yes.
KW: Bruno seemed very closed to the notion that racism still exists. Did you think of an experiment like trying to rent a home in a white neighborhood with him?
BS: That would have been a great one, to do real estate. We had all sorts of scenarios in mind before we arrived in L.A., but once we got going, I had to focus on the things that I had to do. He was such a small part of the equation that I really didn't have time to focus on him. During the taping, I got to a point where when he couldn't see the obvious things that I did show him, I felt that he wasn't going to get it no matter what I did, because he didn't want to get it.
KW: What did you think of Bruno, the white father?
BS: Bruno was not only flat-out closed-minded, but I don't think he really wanted to experience anything new, because if he if he acknowledges that there is a difference between the way blacks and whites are treated, then he has to make a change. But he didn't want to make a change, so that's why he remained in a state of denial.
KW: During the last episode, you called Bruno a racist. Do you still stand by that?
BS: A lot of people asked me about that. When my phone rang, that was the number one question. I know how harsh an accusation that is, but yes I do have to stand by it, because that was the demeanor that he showed me over the course of the project. I couldn't be truthful and up front about everything else that went on, but lie when someone asked me if I felt Bruno was racist, when I knew in my heart that I did.
KW: I agreed with you because of the way he defended his wife's referring to your wife as a ’bitch’ because it's supposedly slang that black folks use all the time for their women.
BS: I could live with her having said it, and Renee could forgive her for saying it, but we just didn't like the fact that they couldn't admit that it was wrong.
KW: How did you feel about Carmen overall?
BS: I think Carmen came in na’ve. She's learned, and she's grown during the project, even though Bruno stopped her progress on the set, as far as getting back to us, the Sparks family, and relaying what she’d learned. I had to go through the whole project saying, ’I don't think Carmen's getting anything out of it either,’ when I could later see that, in fact, she was, in going back and viewing the tapes.
KW: I liked that their daughter, Rose, didn't try to ’act black’ and that your son, Nick, didn't try to ’act white,’ the way that Carmen and Bruno were adopting jive mannerisms, as if some specific language, dress and set of behaviors would make it easier for them to pass.
BS: Yeah, we're all different. There are no two black people alike and no two white people who are the same. Yes, they have a white skin, and we have a brown skin, and that's a physical difference that everyone can see, but we're all unique in our own way
KW: How is Nick doing? He was facing some challenges having dropped out of school.
BS: He's in a military academy down in Fort Stewart, Georgia called Youth Challenge Academy. He's doing very well there. He’ll be graduating June 16th, and that puts him back where he needs to be with his peers, as opposed to where was when he left. He's in a much better situation than he was staying in the Atlanta area and trying to finish out school.
KW: And how is Renee doing back in everyday life?
BS: She's glad the show is over, but she's enjoying it. She's getting recognized on the street as well. And she works in a predominantly white office. They loved the show and everyone shared the same sentiments that Bruno pretty much messed it up for the whole white race.
KW: I have a question about the make-up, because on TV, Rose is the only person who really looked like she could pass. Of course, that was on TV. In real life, was everybody's makeup convincing?
BS: From what I heard, to the naked eye, mine was truly convincing, and, of course, the white family's was truly convincing, because it's easier to go darker than it is to go lighter. So, the only one whose makeup was kind of suspect was Renee. They had a little trouble with her makeup.
KW: Did any of you have problems with the color coming off?
BS: No, the makeup guys did an excellent job. First, they would put the makeup on, and then a sealer on top. We were smart enough to whisper, ’Hey, I think something's coming off,’ into the mike if something was coming undone. We’d then go into a bathroom, and someone would come to meet us there for a touch-up.
KW: When you were undercover as a white bartender, how did you feel hearing locals making racists comments, such as suggesting it was a good neighborhood because it was white. Were you ever tempted to break character?
BS: That's interesting, but no, it never crossed my mind to break character because of anything that I heard, although it was shocking and appalling to hear it still being said in this day and age. And it wasn't like I'd never heard it all before. So, while I did get tight-jawed, nothing ever really got me to a point where I blurted out, ’You know what, you fool? I'm really black, blah, blah, blah.’ But it was tough from day one, when that young guy said that his parents taught him to go wash after he touched the hands of a black person.
KW: How did you react to that?
BS: I really had to put it in all in perspective. I felt that this project was way bigger than the six of us. I thought, this is America, and that whatever happens, I just have to take it on the chin, and let the country see the outcome.
KW: Are you interested in doing a second season of Black White?
BS: No, because this already has America talking. That's all I wanted. I didn't care about the situations, or whether people liked or hated the show, just as long as everybody talked about it.
KW: How did you come to be on the show?
BS: We auditioned for it. I was surfing the Internet through a website that a friend of ours turned me on to, when I stumbled upon across an ad that read, ’black family needed for a project.’
KW: About how many families auditioned and why do you think that yours was picked?
BS: I don't know the exact numbers, but R.J. [Producer R.J. Cutler] says that it was in the hundreds. We were picked based on our personalities, our liberal background, and our willingness to go into the project with an open mind about whatever might happen. They also had to test our skin conditions for makeup. So, a lot of factors went into our selection.
KW: Was there any message that you were trying to deliver on the show that didn't come across?
BS: A lot of messages got lost because of all the bickering and separatism that went on in the house. The main thing that I wanted America to get out of it was that we're all different, and we're all the same. We do have different colors, and there are biases on both sides, but it all boils down to the fact that we're all God's children. I like to say we're God's human snowflakes, because ever last one of us is unique.
KW: Rose hade a crush on a black guy from her poetry group in the next to last episode, but they never addressed that on the final show.
BS: Yeah, she was liking herself some Devon. you're right, they never informed you of what the status of their relationship was.
KW: Do you know whether they’re still seeing each other?
BS: Interesting you should ask, because Devon called me last night to discuss some things, and we were laughing about after the last episode. He's at Howard University now, and said, ’I have a girlfriend down here, and I've been taking a lot of heat about Rose.’
KW: So, he's not in touch with Rose.
BS: He left a message on Rose's machine right before the first episode aired, but he hasn’t heard from her. So, that's another interesting thing. She often told the poetry group on the show, ’I want to keep this going,’ but I don't think she's had any contact with any of those poetry kids since.
KW: Although I think Rose was very earnest at the time, it now sounds almost as if she was slumming in blackface, a chance to see how the other half lives before conveniently going back to a life of white privilege.
BS: you're right, because they know that once it's all over, they can go back to be the privileged ones. I don't think that Rose, Bruno or Carmen are keeping in contact with anyone they've met on the set. Whereas, I still call the makeup guys, and say, ’Hey, how are things going?’ I still keep in contact with some of the golf buddies that I made. Renee and Debra took a cruise together and are good friends. We have maintained contact with the poetry kids, the producers, with a lot of people. I don't think they’re in touch with anybody.
KW: The credits say that Bruno's a school teacher, but In doing my own research on him, I discovered that his last name isn't Wurgel, but Marcotulli, and that he's an actor, and that Carmen is a Hollywood casting scout.
BS: That's interesting, because whereas we auditioned, they knew someone in casting, and that's how they got set up for their audition.
KW: I have no idea, but you have to wonder whether Carmen might have known the casting director for the show.
BS: She did know the casting director, and that's how they got introduced to Black White.
KW: And Bruno has been on TV shows like MacGyver, Murder She Wrote, Baywatch, JAG and several movies including Spy Hard, One Tough Bastard, Safety Patrol and Moon in Scorpio.
BS: Wow! I remember Safety Patrol, but I didn't know he was in all that. And Rose was on a show the Disney Channel.
KW: Wow! Now I didn't know that. She must have used a different last name, too. How is she doing in college?
BS: She's not in school anymore. She dropped out of college.
KW: Do you know why?
BS: I don't know if it's because she just wasn't ready, or if she wanted to pursue acting.
KW: Are you thinking of parlaying this into a show-biz career? I've interviewed a lot of reality show veterans who feel a pressure to do that because they’re suddenly famous.
BS: as a matter of fact, it is something that I'm entertaining and checking into right now. And both families have alreadigned a contract to do some speaking engagements at colleges starting in the Fall.
KW: Looks like you and Bruno are linked for life.
BS: Our two families are definitely linked for life. Whenever you ay one name, the other will definitely come out. That's not a bad thing. I don't have any animosity towards Bruno whatsoever. I just wish he would wake up and realize that there are differences for blacks and whites.
KW: Is there anything else I should be asking you?
BS: [Laughs] You've covered more than anybody else has with me.
KW: Thanks for the time and the interview, Brian. Let's do another one when you go on tour with the Wurgels in September.
BS: Sounds great. I would definitely love to do that.
KW: And give my best to Renee and Nick, and let them know how much I loved the show.
BS: I really appreciate that.