James Toback is no stranger to controversy. In 1998, his brilliant "Two
Girls And A Guy" was slapped with an NC-17 because of a sex scene that
contained not a trace of nudity. His latest film, "Black and White",
also received an NC-17 for a pre-credit sequence involving mE9nage a =
trois in Central Park between a black man and two white teenage girls.
Both films were eventually cut to receive a more marketable R rating,
but each one is crafted with the skill of a filmmaker unafraid of taking
It's too bad, then, that "Black and White" is as stagnant as it is. It
is supposed to be an opus about race relations in New York City, but
ultimately, the film is as inconsequential as any one of the
underdeveloped caricatures that this ensemble cast attempts to animate.
However, that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining 98-minute
Toback has fashioned "Black and White" unconventionally. He allowed his
talented ensemble to improvise many scenes in the film. I'm sure Toback
made this choice in order to add some realism to his character study,
but most of the time, the improvisation leads to dialogue that is
unnecessary, silly and artificial.
The plot of "Black and White" involves a dread-locked Brooke Shields,
playing a documentary filmmaker out to study the recent phenomenon of
upper class white kids who pretend to live the hip-hop lifestyle. Along
with her closeted gay husband (Robert Downey Jr., who starred in
Toback's "Two Girls And A Guy"), she follows around a group of Manhattan
teenagers (Bijou Phillips, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffmann, Eddie Kaye
Thomas) on their daily journey to "the 'hood", where they meet up with
members of the fictional rap group Cream Team (Power, Raekwon, Method
Meanwhile, Dean (Allan Houston), a local basketball player, receives
$50,000 from a mysterious man (Ben Stiller) in order to lose a game. His
girlfriend (Claudia Schiffer) tells him to "be true to yourself", and
taking her advice gets him into trouble with the law.
There is an already infamous scene in "Black and White" which finds
Robert Downey Jr. hitting on a hilarious Mike Tyson (playing himself).
The fun of the encounter is derived from Toback's clever improvisation
guidelines. He told Downey to make a move on Tyson, and told Tyson that
Downey would merely come up and make conversation. After Downey gets a
little too close, Tyson slaps him across the face. "But what if he kills
me?" Downey asked Toback. Toback replied, "Look at it this way; firstly,
I'll get it on camera and we'll have a great scene and secondly, if he
does kill you, what more dramatic way is there to go?" This is a
director with a unique vision.
For a while, "Black and White" gets by on the charm of fish-out-of-water
encounters like the aforementioned Downey-Tyson sequence. But the charm
easily wears thin since many of the actors give irritating performances.
NBA star Allan Houston, supermodel Claudia Schiffer, and rapper Power
all make unsuccessful transitions into acting. Also, Toback's film works
better when it's not worrying about plot. Towards the end, as "Black and
White" works toward its weak denouement, it becomes a conventional
murder story; one that isn't particularly interesting.
Toback is obviously aiming for a dissection of role-playing in society,
but it rarely works as such. Instead, it's a day-in-the-life journey
across the respective 'cribs' of those living "the lifestyle", in one
way or another. To call it a dissection would give Toback too much
credit, because he never gets under the skin of his characters in a way
that Robert Altman might have.
The "wigga" phenomenon was explored in last year's critically reviled
"Whiteboys", and more explorations of the matter seem pointless. "Black
and White" tells its viewer "to thine own self be true," but it
glorifies a culture that would contradict the statement.
Copyright © 2000 Akiva Gottlieb