Black and White
James Toback's new film "Black and White" is messy, disjointed, sometimes sophomoric, occasionally bizarre, and even out of focus in a lot of closeups, but it's a film that is well worth seeing by anyone interested in American culture today. Working from a script (and a lot of improvisation) that somehow manages to incorporate everything from white fears of black threats to hip-hop music and rap culture to white family dysfunction to murder to sex, all in no particular order, Toback somehow keeps the film from falling off the tightrope he's put it on, and against all odds he's come out with a fascinating movie.
Much though by no means all of the film is concerned with the leech-like way in which upscale white kids attach themselves to black hip-hop culture and musicians. It loads the dice by implying that all of that white Central Park West/Park Avenue life is empty and hypocritical, but there is no doubting the visceral power of Toback's images, showing us the way in which the white kids both give and get what they need. And the film never romanticizes the blacks or the culture of slums and ghettos.
Toback brings us into the film through a white couple (Brooke Shields and Robert Downey, Jr.) who are making a documentary about white kids' fascination with black hip-hop culture, and through the kids brings us to a black gang boss named Rich Bower (Power) and his own hangers-on. Rich is producing a hip-hop group's recording, and also overseeing the extortion of money from a white club. One of his confidants is Mike Tyson -- playing himself and doing a good job of it, including playing off his own criminal record. Another, a childhood buddy, is a college basketball star, Dean (the Knicks' basketball player Allan Houston), who's approached by a gambler (Ben Stiller) to take money to throw a game. Dean's moral dilemma, which he shares with his white girlfriend Greta (Claudia Schiffer), an anthropologist -- and is there symbolism here? -- is resolved in what proves to be a very wrong way for him.
Toback juggles all of this, as well as working in a whole other back story about Stiller's character, Mark, who turns out to be a police detective with major issues of his own, and whose own impulses trigger the film's denouement. Somehow everything in the film survives this balls-out treatment, and at times we feel a great exhilaration, almost a contact high, at being near these lives and this world. The film is greatly helped by an astounding selection of both rap and classical music that Toback has chosen, often overlaying two or three at once, one above another, to make his points about white and black relationships. The music is keyed high throughout, and we listen to the rap words as much as to the film's dialogue.
The film moves from Central Park to ghetto streets to what is apparently the (real) Wu-Tang Clan's own home, called The Fortress, in Staten Island with a gorgeous view overlooking NewYork harbor. It's an unusual location that might just be a statement about the similarities, rather than the differences, between the races.
Obviously shot on the fly, with no budget and nothing but the help of Toback's own friends and their friends, the film survives all crises, both creative and logistical, and makes a strong impression about a topic that everyone else seems to have run away from. It deserves to be seen.