Black and White
Directed by James Toback
Screen Gems Inc.
Return to Me
Directed by Bonnie Hunt
In the interracial drama Black and White, director James Toback sets out to document a moment in which hip-hop has saturated mass culture to the point where rich white kids are dressing and acting and talking like blacks and where blacks are going along in exchange for access to what white people have—or, in some cases, what white people have abandoned in their quest for “niggah-hood.”
The satire in the film is heavy-handed and the sociology dispensed in thick gobs (by actors playing teachers, graduate students, and documentary filmmakers); the narrative itself is crude and melodramatic. But the experience of watching Black and White is something else: heady, unnerving, superbly disorienting. Toback throws a hell of a party. He has gathered the blackest of blacks and whitest of whites and set them to improvising in a playful, sometimes restive atmosphere. The result is a movie that gleefully pushes everyone’s buttons—and that manages to exploit our own racial discomfort and envy in ways that leave us hungry for more.
Toback opens Black and White with a sequence that would, in another era, have gotten him strung up, and maybe in parts of the country still would. The camera descends on New York’s Central Park to discover a big black man caressing two white schoolgirls while another big black man watches avidly. Black hands move over a white thigh and backside, there’s a flash of a skinny blonde’s breasts, and then the girls begin to kiss and fondle each other. Take that, Mandingo. The people at the preview I attended were mostly African-American, but apart from low whistles and the thump of an older woman tripping over someone’s feet on her way to the exit, they made little sound. They were stunned.
A few minutes later, the skinny blonde, Charlie (the singer Bijou Phillips), shows up at the dinner table of her family manse. The mom is played by Marla Maples. A caramel-colored black butler stands nearby. An argument ensues in which Charlie tells her dad she was at the “libary” instead of the “library” and he complains about her black diction. In her opulent bedroom, she blows off a white boyfriend to talk on her cell phone to the black guy she just screwed (“Yo, whassup, Rich!”). Rich, who’s played by Power, a producer for the group Wu Tang Clan, is getting his privates massaged by a black woman while elsewhere in his apartment some brothers scrutinize their handguns. The gunmen, among them Rich’s sidekick Cigar (Raekwon, of Wu Tang Clan), are also musicians trying to move from street crime to the world of the recording studio—but the roles of gangsta and rapper overlap famously.
Blond singers! Black gangstas! Rap stars! And still the subplots and stars keep coming! Rich’s buddy is a college basketball player named Dean (the New York Knicks’ Allan Houston) who’s dating Greta (supermodel Claudia Schiffer), a graduate student full of theories on miscegenation and the eventual dissolution of color lines. That she turns out to be a blond lynx demon out of the most retro misogynistic films noirs suggests that her treatises on the melding of races should be taken with a grain of salt.
But she’s not the only one holding forth on the movie’s themes. A high-school teacher (Jared Leto) quotes Iago (“I am not what I am”) and asks why so many white kids are attracted to the alien African-American culture. “You don’t wanna be what people expect of your race,” says a pale honky. “I’m a kid in America,” says Charlie, meaning her freedom extends to being anything she wants to be, even black. Brooke Shields shows up as a rich video-maker with dreadlocks and the same set of questions. She and her insinuatingly homosexual husband (Robert Downey Jr.) trail these privileged white kids around soliciting more theories on why trust-funders in baggy pants call one another “niggah” and parrot gangsta rap. You can’t accuse Toback of soft-pedaling his premise.
For all its postmodern self-consciousness, though, Black and White evolves into a fairly conventional melodrama in which the villain (Ben Stiller) is a little Jewish guy clearly consumed with sexual envy. That Toback’s characters make fun of the Big Dick theory doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t fueled by it: Toback has a Maileresque obsession with the notion of the White Negro, and none of his white characters have the same weight or rootedness as his African-Americans.
Is this conscious? Maybe, but Toback is legendarily lazy when it comes to screenwriting. He’d rather cook up a scenario and gather a bunch of beautiful people around and let them improvise. He knew it would be fun to hang out with all these famous personalities—to push and pull and see what came out. Oh, to have been a fly on that set!
At a party 10 years ago, Toback told me he’d just seen a movie with a high-flying young actor who he thought might have some talent, but that to get a great performance from the guy you’d have to arrange to have him butt-fucked. He was being purposely disgusting—Maileresque—but metaphorically speaking he was on the money: The fellow was a tight ass who needed a psychological reaming-out. (It never happened, and the actor has since faded from view.) I mention this to show both that Toback loves to shock and that he has an appetite for “opening up” actors, and in Black and White, both impulses are on brilliant display. In some cases, the experiment flops. Schiffer has an impenetrable presence, which is doubly unfortunate since the narrative turns on a shocking about-face that even a real actress would have trouble fleshing out. But elsewhere he hits pay dirt. Power lives up to his moniker—he broods with the brazen assurance of a real movie star. And Phillips gives her hip-hop lingo a deliciously dirty spin.
What does it say about a film in which its still center—the island of calm—is Mike Tyson? Tyson, playing himself, shows up at Rich’s parties to counsel the gangsta on managing his affairs—and his emotions. “I’ve made too many mistakes to be a man known for his wisdom,” says Tyson, but everything he says in that high, gentle rasp carries the weight of experience. At some point, Toback had a whim that will go down in movie history: He dispatched Downey to improvise a scene in which he puts the moves on the unknowing heavyweight champ. The astounding Downey, all his genius comic circuits firing, floats over to Tyson like a butterfly and playfully jabs at him: “I dream about you,” he says—and it gets more excruciating from there. The wait for the champ to explode is one of the most screamingly funny couple of minutes in movies in years. And it’s real.
The movie doesn’t have an ending—an unfortunate consequence of working without a finished script. But in some ways, Black and White is more fascinating for what happens to us while we watch than for anything in its narrative. In the course of the film, I monitored my own responses and found them sometimes alarmingly racist. I watched the whites in the audience, who laughed a little too eagerly at the inside hip-hop jokes. I watched the African-Americans, who were moved by the movie’s attentions but who cringed at some of the characters’ decisions. “You are a stupid nigger,” said the black man sitting next to me when Houston made a fatally terrible move. “Yeah,” I piped up—then realized the sentiment meant something different in my white mouth. So I shut the fuck up, know what I’m sayin’?
After Toback’s exhilarating, up-to-the-minute tragicomic mess, it might be soothing to walk next door in the multiplex and see Return to Me, an old-fashioned boy-loses-girl, boy-meets-new-girl movie that plays like a dim Lifetime made-for-cable picture but with bigger stars. Have you heard the premise? A builder (David Duchovny) falls in love with a woman (Minnie Driver) who turns out to have the transplanted heart of his dead wife. The idea is so bizarrely terrible that even the film’s own characters can’t get a grip on it. They spend the last half-hour sitting around staring into space and saying things like, “Wow. What are the odds of that?” I wouldn’t mention it at all except that Duchovny is rather endearing and Driver’s absolutely enchanting. She’s a big girl, but her stature makes her seem somehow frailer, as if that transplanted heart would have to work harder to reach those distant, lonely extremities.