REVIEW: The 'Wigger' Sideshow, Toback's Simplistic "Black and White"
by Mia Mask
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(indieWIRE/4.6.2000) -- 'Wiggers' -- those crazy white people who think they're acting like 'niggers' -- never fail to fascinate and bemuse. Recently, these peculiar, not so new, social animals have captured the attention of several filmmakers. There was Larry Clark's 1995 documentary-style "Kids," which outraged many with its depiction of pre-teens drugging, drinking and screwing with abandon. Parental response to the absence of morality was attributed -- in part -- to the perception that these kids were "acting black" -- whatever that means. In 1998, Warren Beatty showcased "Bulworth" a political farce (about a senator-turned-wigger) that misfired with many critics and audiences. And Marc Levin's comedy "Whiteboyz" (1999) did allow Danny Hoch to prove that he could rhyme with the best of them, but offered little more.
Now there's James Toback's "Black and White," the latest in a spate of feature films to present white teenage rebellion as identification with black youth culture. The white characters in Toback's film might not refer to themselves as wiggers, but they are. Each of these films has had a gimmick to go along with the wigger sideshow. Whereas previous films featured carefully directed non-professional actors, pitched to art house audiences or attempted political parody -- Toback's film parades sports stars (Mike Tyson and Allan Houston), celebrities (Marla Maples), supermodels (Brooke Shields and Claudia Schiffer) and rap artists (Power, Raekwon), and winds up looking more like the meanderings behind the set of a rap video than a constructed film.
"Black and White" opens with casual, interracial, teen sex: a ménage à trois between bad boy gangster-artist Rich (Oli "Power" Grant) and two privileged white girls, Charlie (Bijou Phillips) and Kim (Kim Matulova) gettin' their grove on in Central Park. From the very first frames, Toback takes a cheap shot (pun intended): titillating audiences by tickling the American cultural funny bone of interracial sex. Afterwards, Charlie goes home to her conservative parents and goody-two-shoes baby sisters, who are sitting down to dinner in a posh New York apartment. The stark contrast drawn between her home and her Hip Hop lifestyle set up the simplistic binary that structures the entire film: black folks are here synonymous with nature (as earthy, carnal, emotional and endowed with physical prowess) and white folks are synonymous with culture (as filmmakers, anthropologists, businessmen and lawyers).
The film is more than the exploitation of taboos around miscegenation and racial essentialism. It attempts to comment on the roles people play and on the ways in which they disconnect from one another -- treating each other as objects rather than subjects. Chastised by her father for tardiness and poor table manners, a finger-snapping, head-weaving Charlie -- in perfect wigger dialect -- tells her disconnected dad to stop complaining about her friends, her music, her speech and the hours she keeps. For no apparent reason, this tumultuous dinner scene is intercut with scenes of Cigar (original Wu-Tang Clan member Corey "Raekwon" Woods) and his agent discussing music contracts. It's only much later that this scene is tangentially related to a would-be plot -- the tangled web of deceit, blackmail and bribery woven by Mark (Ben Stiller), a rogue cop who sets up a sting operation in an attempt to win back ex-girlfriend Greta (Claudia Schiffer).
As if intentionally alluding to "Kids," Toback introduces the dreadlock-wearing white documentarian Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) and her obviously gay husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr.). They're the friendly couple eagerly pursuing Charlie and friends for a documentary about white teens who appropriate Hip Hop idioms. Brooke Shields succeeds in making Sam the menacing presence she's supposed to be. She's annoyingly ubiquitous with her hand-held camera and rapidly fired questions like: Why do you use black vernacular? Is this Hip Hop thing about white teen rebellion? And isn't the term "nigger" a put down? The latter question evokes anger from Phillips' offended Charlie who clarifies the distinction with a lesson in vernacular, making a crucial distinction between 'nigger' and 'nigga.'
Following the jaded youngsters on their adolescent romps around New York City, Sam and Terry wind up at Rich's palatial loft, where a sexually frustrated Terry lets loose a deluge of sexual desire for Mike Tyson. Here, Tyson does a good job of playing himself: a man who has difficulty controlling a violent temper. Too bad this scene isn't as funny or as believable as when Terry's advances are again rebuffed by a white teenager riding the Staten Island Ferry.
There aren't too many reasons to see this movie. Robert Downey Jr. gives a performance that is strong. His Terry is one of the few believable and humorous characters in the film. There's also the soundtrack by Staten Island's own Wu-Tang Clan. It's curious to watch Allan Houston as Dean, a college basketball star who suffers dearly for accepting money to throw a game. Both Houston and Toback could have fleshed out Dean's character. As it stands, he seems completely clueless and totally isolated from other teammates.
Some enjoyable moments do come when the film is humorously self-reflexive: as when one of the white characters in Rich's entourage is referred to as "a white boy tryin' to be a nigga." But overall, "Black and White" is an underdeveloped film that presents racial stereotypes without saying much about them we didn't already know. You might want to pass on this film and read Norman Mailer's 1957 essay: "The White Negro" instead. Or, when "Black and White" is released on video, rent it -- if you must -- along with a back up for the evening.
[Mia Mask is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. She is a freelance film reviewer and editor at Cineaste magazine. Her writing also appeared in Best American Movie Writing, 1999.]