[box cover]

Black and White

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Brooke Shields, Oli "Power" Grant,
Ben Stiller, Bijou Phillips, Allan Houston,
Claudia Schiffer, Gaby Hoffman, and Elijah Wood

Written and directed by James Toback

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Review by Besty Bozdech                    

In Black and White, writer/director James Toback seems to have one goal: to shock his audience into looking beyond their preconceived notions of race and the icons of hip-hop culture. On that level, the film works well — from its explicit opening scene (a black man has sex with two white teenagers in Central Park) to its somewhat abrupt end, Black and White is chock-full of unexpected situations, language, and people. But as a gripping story about compelling characters, it falls a little short — it's too crowded and scattershot to really engage the viewer in the events taking place on screen.

Of course, that may simply be because many of the people watching the film can't really identify with the lifestyle and issues Black and White is all about. Unless you're a member of the Wu Tang clan, a wealthy, rebellious New York teenager, or a cutting-edge documentary filmmaker, you may find it difficult to sympathize with or truly understand the film's characters.

Not that they're not interesting. Take Charlie (wild child Bijou Phillips), for example. One of the two girls involved in the opening tryst in Central Park, Charlie is an investment banker's daughter who hails from uptown Manhattan. She's privileged and rich — and she and her friends like to spend their time talking and dressing like the rappers they hang out with in Harlem and on Staten Island. The leader of that group is Rich Bower (Oli "Power" Grant), a black man who embraces his background and culture, but who sees making money as a musician as his ticket out of the dead-end poverty of the ghetto. And then there's Sam and Terry Donager (Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr.), husband-and-wife filmmakers who follow Charlie and her friends around to document their lifestyle; conflicted college basketball player Dean (the New York Knicks' Allan Houston) and his statuesque grad student girlfriend Greta (supermodel Claudia Schiffer); Will (William Lee Scott), the white D.A.'s son who has chosen to live as Power's lackey; and mystery man Mark Clear (Ben Stiller). Even boxer/ex-con Mike Tyson puts in an appearance. All of these players (and many more) interact in Toback's complex world, where racial identity is both fluid and ultimately unalterable.

Black and White's main narrative, such as it is, centers on Dean. Approached by Clear and asked to throw a Columbia basketball game for $50,000, Dean finds his actions lead to unexpected (and unwelcome) results. To say much more would be to give away too much; besides, the plot is just a backdrop on which Toback's characters interact and play out their intricate relationships.

Wisely, Toback trusts his actors to take control of their parts. As in Toback's last film, 1998's Two Girls and a Guy, much of Black and White's dialogue is improvised. But it goes beyond that. According to Toback in his director's commentary, Shields, Downey, and the rest of the gang also had a lot of say in their characters' foibles and actions. Hence Shields' ratty red dreadlocks and Downey's amusingly flirtatious take on the obviously gay Terry, who hits on anything in pants (including, in one memorable scene, Tyson). They're icons calling their status in society into question — which is essentially what the film itself is about.

Toback gives his actors plenty of opportunities to explore how their characters feel about race and the increasing presence of hip-hop culture in the mainstream world. "I wanna be black," Charlie says matter-of-factly to hip teacher Casey (Jared Leto) during a classroom discussion of culture and identity. "I can do whatever I want. I'm a kid in America." Her friend Kim puts it a little more delicately: "You don't want to be what people expect of your race." But neither girl succeeds in convincing their teacher (or the viewer) that their enthusiasm is anything more than teenage rebellion.

Rich and Dean's discussion about race a little later in the film seems much more significant simply because they're not spoiled rich kids; these are guys who've lived their whole lives in the shadow of racism. Rapper Rich, while he enjoys taking advantage of what Charlie and her friends have to offer him, is suspicious of the white people trying to infiltrate his world. "What you think these white people really want from us?" he asks Dean. Dean, whose girlfriend is white, seems to take a more accepting view on the situation than his old buddy. "White people are as different from each other as black people," he lectures Rich. The talk, which seems harmless enough at the time, takes on a greater significance later in the film, suggesting that even in today's "enlightened" society, the oppressed aren't quite ready to embrace equality with the oppressors.

It's that back-and-forth about racial identity, cleverly accented by the film's soundtrack, that's the most significant thing Black and White has to offer (well, that and hearing Mike Tyson spout lines like "If you're not willing to be nice to someone constantly, then you should kill 'em"). Unfortunately, Toback's message occasionally gets drowned out by the too-large cast. It's hard to invest in a character when he or she keeps disappearing from the film, and it's difficult to follow a theme amid chaotic, overcrowded scenes.

Toback gets plenty of opportunity to discuss the film's cast, content, and style in his commentary. This is a case where hearing what the director has to say is invaluable; getting the background on the film's locations, supporting cast (many of Bower's buddies are played by real-life Wu Tang Clan members), and message helps make sense of the confusion on screen. But, considering that Toback's goal for Black and White was for the film "to reveal you to yourself," he was really almost pre-destined to fail. The last thing most Americans are ready for is to really think about their innermost notions of race and identity. Nevertheless, it's good that he — that someone — tried.

Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of Black and White features a crisp anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that showcases every golden tone and subtle shadow of the cinematography. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Features include Toback's commentary, a five-minute "video diary" that intersperses clips from the film with sound bites from Toback, a track featuring the isolated film score, two deleted scenes/alternate takes, brief bios/filmographies for Toback and the main cast, two music videos, and trailers. Keep-case.

— Betsy Bozdech

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