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Black and White

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Black and White

Starring: Oliver Grant, Ben Stiller
Director: James Toback
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: April 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Gaby Hoffman, Kidada Jones, Jared Leto, James Toback, Sticky Fingaz, Method Man, Garry Pastore, Claudia Schiffer, Brooke Shields

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In Warren Beatty's far superior (if obviously more commercial) picture "Bulworth," the title character ends up with a philosophy about race relations in America. To paraphrase Bulworth's view without the vulgarity, "If blacks and whites would just get together and make babies, one with the other, the race problem could be solved in a generation or two." "Bulworth" was permeated with a rap score just like James Toback's decidedly indie film "Black and White," but Toback's somewhat improvised and disappointingly edited commentary on race relations is so pretentious and convoluted that the viewer could not be blamed for thinking that his principal motive in making it was simply to get down with the 'hood. Featuring an impressive cast including Elijah Wood, Mike Tyson, Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields, Jared Leto, Robert Downey Jr. and supermodel Claudia Schiffer, "Black and White" wastes them one and all with dialogue that pushes for comedic and sometimes poignant effect, but the director's reach far exceeds his grasp.

Toback appears to believe that racial relations are not going to be solved Bulworth style but that there may be hope for relief from prejudice and hatred in the way the current generation of young people are erasing geographical, sexual and racial boundaries. In this belief he appears to amend New York Times political writer Thomas Friedman's view that even national boundaries themselves are swiftly being ignored in an increasingly globalized world. Yet there are indications even within the film that what the young white people are doing is nothing more than a phase, and that the more prescient among them know that they're just kids who will inevitably shuck off their fascination with hip hop and with their emulation of black dress, walk and talk.

Featured at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival where as least some in audience considered "Black and White" one of the pleasant surprises, the movie is an ensemble piece in the Robert Altman tradition but without much of that great director's talent in evidence. Opening with an attention- getter--an interracial threesome getting it on in the park (with the women kissing each other while caressing a black male)-- the film shifts hither and thither to embrace various scenarios. One such scenario recalls August Wilson's play that takes place during the 1920s, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," except that in this case the white record producer is not interested in exploiting a black group's talents but rather in questioning whether he should deal at all with a guy who has a criminal background. Rich Bower (Power) enjoys the central role if, indeed, there is a hub, as a gangster who is trying to make an honest go of things via his talents with rap. But when a white dude sets up a night club on his uptown turf, he gets mean (if not lean) and demands seventy percent of the take-- a command that he and his group back up with guns.

Robert Downey Jr. appears as Terry, a bisexual who is married to a woman who wears the family pants, Sam (Brooks Shields). While Sam gets brashly into people's faces filming a documentary about the convergence of black and white culture among the young, Terry comes on to several males--including Mike Tyson, who plays himself--in displays that are meant to be hysterical but which are obvious and fall flat. The only absorbing action in the 100-minute movie-- which pushes fiction about as far as it will go before it crosses the border into documentary--involves a police detective (Ben Stiller) who was once a gangster but who seeks redemption behind a badge and even a new name. Trapping a star basketball player, Dean (Allan Houston of the New York Knicks) into accepting a bribe with the aim of using him to get the goods on gang boss Rich Bower, he finds that his action leads not to his redemption but to the murder of a young man he had grown to like.

Teachers in the audience may envy the role of Casey (Jared Leto, who looks dashing in his platinum blond hair and black sweater), as he instructs a highly articulate class in what appears to be a great learning experience but is, in fact nothing more than the standard sort of rap session that passes for education in some of New York secondary schools. All in all the film--which in a brief time tries to embrace sexuality, experimentation with identity, and humor-- succeeds in none of the above thanks to limp direction and a script that's as mushy as a scoop of overcooked grits.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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