Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Black and White

By Marjorie Baumgarten

APRIL 10, 2000: 

D: James Toback; with Power, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Bijou Phillips, Allan Houston, Joe Pantoliano, Claudia Schiffer, Mike Tyson, Raekwon, Method Man, Gaby Hoffmann, Stacy Edwards, Kidada Jones, Jared Leto, Marla Maples, William Lee Scott, Scott Caan, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Elijah Wood, Brett Ratner. (R, 100 min.)

Ever since his debut film Fingers in 1978, James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy, The Pick-up Artist) has been playing fast and loose with the rules. His new film Black and White is a fascinating, perplexing, amusing, and irascible look at issues of race, class, and hip-hop in modern-day New York City. Constructed as a mosaic of characters and scenes that flow easily from one to the other, the film maintains its semi-improvisatory feel but nevertheless evinces the dominating authorial hand of its director James Toback. It's a film about people who are in the process of assuming other identities. There are the privileged white teenagers who adopt the stylings of hip-hop culture, the hip-hop musicians (played by members of the Wu-Tang Clan) who wish to infiltrate the white music pipelines and leave the life of crime behind, a black kid whose path out of the ghetto is his college basketball ability (Knicks forward Houston, who appears a shade too old for a college boy), the shallow, white documentary filmmaker with dreadlocks who is making a film about white kids who are fascinated with black culture (Shields), the filmmaker's assertively gay husband and partner (frequent Toback collaborator Downey), and the detective whose agenda is never fully disclosed (Stiller). Mike Tyson also appears, playing himself, but given the movie's turnabouts it should come as little shock that Tyson functions as Black and White'ssagely and articulate moral advisor. This is where the movie's permeable lines between fiction and reality really break down. Is Tyson's wisdom the real thing or scripted? Is Brooke Shields playing the role of a shallow filmmaker or is she a shallow actress playing a documentarian? Is supermodel Claudia Schiffer to be taken for real in the role of a graduate student of anthropology? Are the white kids really attracted to black gangsta culture or a Norman Maileresque model of the White Negro infused with all the popular myths about sex and virility? And so on. From the get-go, Toback hurls all his ideas in our faces ­ the best example being the al fresco three-way that opens the movie. Not all of it works, not by a long shot ­ particularly the implausible plot involving the detective and a murder. But Toback shouldn't be penalized for trying. He takes a grand flier with Black and White by filling it with ideas, and although the mixture sometime turns a murky hue, Toback's palette is stark and unburnished.

3 Stars

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