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Black and White

Review by David Luty
Posted 7 April 2000

Written and Directed by James Toback

Starring Scott Caan, 
Robert Downey Jr., Stacy Edwards, 
Allan Houston, Gaby Hoffmann, 
Kidada Jones, Jared Leto, 
Marla Maples, Joe Pantoliano, 
Bijou Phillips, Power, Raekwon, 
Claudia Schiffer, William Lee Scott, 
Brooke Shields, Ben Stiller, 
Eddie Kaye Thomas, James Toback, 
Mike Tyson, Elijah Wood, 
and Kim Matulova

There's a thin line between rawness and incompetence, and after a tiny baby-step into serious sociological ground, Black and White takes a flying leap into the land of the inept. Writer-director James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy) has ventured into race territory, which is tricky enough, but he's gone one further by trying to tackle the world of hip hop, and he gets his ass kicked. Full of characters in variously desperate searches for validation and authenticity, Black and White manages to come across as patently false during its every move. Rarely has a fiction film cried out so loudly to be a documentary.

That's because the world we know as hip hop is so vibrant, so politically and emotionally expressive, so inviting with its faint promises of fame and fortune, and so dangerous with its symbiotic connection to gangland give and take that, from the outside, the players tend to be quickly categorized as noisy, stupid, greedy thugs. And more than likely that's often true. But just as likely is the fact that other, more complex needs are being satisfied there, and the mindsets that seek it out embody fertile ground for some fascinating sociology. Toback seems to be aware of the possibilities, but he takes a disastrous route to get there. Going for some superficially gained verisimilitude, he fills his cast with non-actors. Power and Raekwon (from the rap group Wu Tang Clan), supermodel Claudia Schiffer, and Knicks shooting guard Alan Houston all hold major roles (and there's also some stunt casting with Marla Maples and Mike Tyson, playing himself), and instead of utilizing whatever personal insights these people may hold, they're all stuck awkwardly reading lines off of Toback's mess of a script. While some of the actors are clearly improvising their exchanges, it's the wrong ones who are doing it. Power and Raekwon, who'd have the most direct insight into the subject matter, are also among the characters who feel the most stiff and scripted.

They play gang leader Rich Bower and his main man Cigar, respectively, and at the beginning of the film, they're both seeking out the respect and legitimacy they see as being provided by the white world, through the door of rap music. But they're held back by a white recording studio head (played by Toback) who's worried about farming his facility out to known killers. Conversely, a gang of upper east side rich, privileged, and white high school kids (Bijou Phillips, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffman, William Lee Scott, Kim Matulova, Scott Caan) are seeking out the raw authenticity and exotic foreignness of the black hip hop world, with Philips and Matulova particularly willing to give every ounce of themselves for it. It's all a bit on the schematic side (as is reinforced by the title), but such sexual and racial tensions that pepper the early stages of Black and White do point us in a direction with significant possibilities. Bower's confusion and defiant lack of self-awareness along with the motivations of these kids who have everything going for them -- what white wants from black, and black from white -- are certainly inroads to understanding the psychology of anger and power that drives the inhabitants and hangers-on of hip hop. But Toback isn't even close to being up to the task of getting inside their heads.

He just doesn't seem to know what he wants his movie to do. The flat lighting and handheld camerawork (and some awfully gawky editing) point to a documentary feel, and the free-form narrative supports that. But rather than utilizing each of the multiple story threads to comment on one another and create larger meanings, it always seems as if Toback is just looking for a story that will work. By the time he settles on one, which he does about halfway through the movie, it's a pathetic surrender. All that stuff about sociology, racial and sexual dynamics, and the culture and psychology of hip hop? Out the window.

By the time Black and White has mined only deep enough to find that the denizens of hip hop want respect and that the kids are rebelling from their materialistic parents, ideas which don't quite reach the height of insight, clunky melodrama takes over, with a jittery Ben Stiller instigating a double-cross yarn fueled by personal motivations that are at best murky, and often outright laughable. The kids all but disappear. Brooke Shields, playing a clueless documentarian following the kids who represents Toback all too well, disappears. Robert Downey Jr., as her newly reawakened gay husband, pops in from time to time for some comic relief (he's actually the most lively character to be found, and his encounter with Mike Tyson is a hilarious, unsettling doozy), but he has no impact on any story being told. Barely established characters suddenly take on more plot weight than they can possibly hold. It's all a big, clumsy, wooden mess, with little direction or point of view. You have to give Toback some credit for the impetus to crash such diametrically opposed cultures together and see what's left over. The movie is certainly audacious, but if audacity alone were enough, everyone would be humming the angriest, ugliest rap tunes in the shower.

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