TELLURIDE '99 REVIEW: Toback's "Black and White," Wrongheadded, Confused and Awkward
by Margaret A. McGurk
James Toback obviously thought he was doing something daring and edgy when he went to work on "Black and White."
Turns out the riskiest thing he did was to ask Brooke Shields to improvise dialogue.
Although the cast includes some fine actors -- including Robert Downey Jr., Gaby Hoffman and Elijah Wood -- their efforts are sunk in the general wrong-headedness of the entire enterprise.
In his attempt to show rich white kids slumming in the world of rap music, with clothes, slang and attitudes to match, Toback manages to be both stereotypical and out of touch.
He trots out all the cliches of ghetto drama, from a chaotic club scene to a fatally bad cop (Ben Stiller). He pours on the ugliest aspects of gangsta rap as if violence and obscenity were proud gifts of African-American culture. He's got rappers yammering on about "keeping it real" but pays no mind to what is being kept or why. Only once does a character squeeze in the idea that, for many people who live in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation's big cities, rap represents everything they're trying to escape.
That comment hints at a key point that escapes Toback entirely: from the beginning, rap has connected more effectively with suburbanites, black and white, than with inner-city audiences. Also from the beginning, white kids have been at least as devoted to rap as black kids. The styles of speech and dress that cause such consternation to Toback's sheltered white parents (among them Marla Maples) are now ubiquitous throughout the nation. In any mall, any high school, any record store or video arcade, white kids dressed in low-slung jeans who call one another "nigga" can quote the lyrics from artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, who are featured in "Black and White."
For "Black and White" that means Toback is asking the audience -- at least the white audience -- to identify with a tiny group of rich people who have purchased a life of such racial isolation that they are horrified and confused when their children reflect black influences. Of course, most of them are also too ineffectual to discuss the matter in a meaningful way with the kids.
Toback's decision to allow the actors to improve much of the dialogue leads to a few provocative conversations, but just as often it leads to confusion and awkwardness, as does the casting of Mike Tyson as himself.
As is his wont, Toback includes a sex scene that had to be trimmed to keep the movie from ending up with an NC-17 rating. As in "Two Girls and a Guy" it mostly looks like a vertical wrestling match, this time outdoors. It doesn't add much to the story, but it offers a respite from all that improvising.
There is a story to be told about the vast, global influence of hip-hop music and style on youth culture. "Black and White" isn't it.
[Margaret A. McGurk is film critic at The Cincinnati Enquirer. She has also
written for The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]