Black and White (2000)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Kids in America


‘m a kid in America, I can do whatever I want.” Jutting her chin at the camera, New York City high schooler Charlie (Bijou Phillips) mouths off to her stuffy-suit dad, who’s been pestering her about where she goes after school. All attitude, Charlie mumbles she’s been at the “li-bary” (her mispronunciation, of course, is all the proof he needs that she’s wasting his private school tuition). But you know better. Just minutes earlier, you’ve seen Charlie looking decidedly less pert, her plaid school skirt hiked up to her waist, while she and classmate Raven (Gaby Hoffmann) make out with each other and Rich (Wutang producer Oli “Power” Grant), backed up against a tree in the park. The camera comes upon this trio while emulating the gazes of three kids who just happen along. The kids are titillated, of course, but then Rich’s bodyguard/friend chases them off, and the camera takes a more direct view, without intermediaries: white on black skins, the girls so eager to please, Rich so assured and in love with himself.

cover art

Black and White

Director: James Toback
Cast: Power, Bijou Phillips, Raekwon, Claudia Schiffer, Allan Houston, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Method Man, Kidada Jones, Elijah Wood, Mike Tyson, Brett Ratner

(Screen Gems)

Within its first five minutes, James Toback’s Black and White sets up its central tensions, contrived and voyeuristic. See the privileged white girl cavort with ambitious and audacious black men, and thrill in their differences. See the girls so soft and naive, the boys so hard and worldly. “Black and white: what happens,” asks the film’s tagline, “when you mix it up?” No doubt, this is an intriguing and immediately relevant question: white kids consume hip-hop, black kids aspire to hip-hop wealth and fame, black and white kids spend time, money, and bodily fluids with one another.

But Toback’s movie never gets much below surfaces — all that black and white skin — seeming quite stuck at the sense of alarm the question incites (a sense of alarm that the kids doing all this mixing up have long since gotten over already). This sense of alarm is quaint, in its way, but it’s not very interesting if the topic at hand is “today’s youth.” As answers for its weighty question, Black and White settles for schematic characters, cheaply titillating situations, and a telling preoccupation with black men and white women (and girls). You have to wonder why, after all this time, this particular sexual-emotional-political configuration remains so mesmerizing. And, frankly, you might find something of an explanation in Toback’s own background, about which he’s happy enough to talk to interviewers, which includes a lingering fascination with Norman Mailer’s famously self-indulgent essay, “The White Negro,” and fond memories of circa-‘60s-into-‘70s Bohemia, when interracial relationships (say, Gloria Steinem and Rafer Johnson) made heads turn and made everyone involved — as participants or partisans — feel daring.

Of course, the violence that can emerge from such racial mixing was and is very real. But the violence in Black and White is contrived and annoying in its base cultural assumptions — about ever angry and ever aggressive black men (here, the film’s prime example is Mike Tyson, who plays himself, probably fortunately: imagine his efforts to “act”). The plot here spirals into absurdity early on, even though the film is plainly dead-serious about its self-designated mission, to get the attention of those adults (read: the art house audiences who will likely make up the majority of the box office) who haven’t yet caught on to the interracial dynamics of hip-hop culture. To this end, it works hard to be at once solemn and chic, seductive and ironic.

Taking hip-hop — as industry and culture — as its investigative ground, the movie offers a range of characters, focused through Charlie and Rich: she’s on his dick (and all aflutter about the commotion — real and imagined — it causes among her friends and parents) and he seeks her “information,” that is, he wants to know how her always-already-moneyed class operates, what it wants from him and what it can offer him. He’s got specific reasons for wanting this knowledge: Rich is, of course, a drug dealer who has seen the huge cash money (and relatively smaller risks) in hip-hop production, and he’s decided to go legit by producing Cigar (Raekwon, who has indeed has his own Wutang and solo work executive produced by Power). One of the movie’s several interrelated plots concerns Rich’s endeavors to secure studio space for Cigar’s recording, during which he reveals himself to be suspicious and cruel, this being the film’s reiterated, unimaginative take on “hip-hop” artists and entrepreneurs.

Rich is charismatic, no doubt, but he has no onscreen competition (except for a brief street scene featuring Method Man, who blows everyone off the screen). Rae’s rhymes are fine, but he doesn’t get much chance to show off except on the soundtrack, which also includes arresting tracks by Everlast, Queen Pen, Xzibit, dead prez, and an eerie cover of “Daddy’s Little Girl” by LV (remember him from his Coolio days?). At the same time that Rich commands respect, by whatever illegal and legal means, all the aspiring players around him are less deft, less interesting, and certainly less aware of their potential. Rich is a top dog because… he is.

On one level, the film appears aware of the prejudices it portrays: Rich signs a contract with studio owner Arnie Tishman (Toback), who is so fearful of the “Tupac” thing, of finding “a corpse in the elevator,” that he won’t deal with Rich or Cigar, only with their white lawyer. Rich and Cigar note this reluctance and scoff (you see them in one private conversation, wondering just what it is white people expect and desire). They’re simultaneously enraged, sad, frustrated, and yet again feeling justified for their lifelong distrust of white folks: for all their money and clout on the streets, they still live the ongoing BWB — “breathing while black” — nightmare that simply is existence for black males in the U.S., so seeing Tishman wuss around just makes all the pain and fear that much clearer. At the same time, Rich and Cigar know they can make a legal living off this pain and fear. (White folks have been doing it for years, selling black art and acts.)

While the film’s stereotyping of Tishman might seem funny for a minute, almost immediately it turns into a premonition, when it vindicates Tishman’s trepidation by making Rich and his boys into full-on thugs, fully capable of leaving corpses anywhere in his office building. When Rich hears that some white kids have the temerity to open a club in his neighborhood without his consent (or an appropriate payment), he and the boys drive on over to the club, get in the kids’ frightened faces, and pull out their weapons. Needless to say, the scene is shot in a handheld panic, the white boys’ terror is palpable, and Rich’s posse looks very scary. In a word, the film makes Rich look predatory, regarding white girls and white money. Occasionally, he’s advised by old friend Jesse (who appears to be nothing short of his “conscience”: how corny is that?), essentially to “stay black” and steer clear of white girls (the fact that Jesse’s played by Kidada Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton, makes her advice more complicated than it sounds).

Most of Rich’s conversations — with anyone — seem contrived to show his arrogance, until he’s worried that he’s been betrayed, and then you see his paranoia: such tropes are familiar to anyone who’s seen a hood movie or heard a rap song in the past twenty years. The film, however, serves up its dialogue and plot machinations as if they’re news. Like much of Toback’s previous work — including his Two Guys and a GirlBlack and White is part scripted and part improvised, establishing some inevitable and moderately exasperating scenes of brutality and coitus, ostensibly resulting from characters’ outrageous interracial desires. It fancies itself insightful and provocative. Consider the moment that’s been attracting media attention (running in trailers, described in the New Yorker, 27 March 2000). Mike Tyson (playing himself) assaults Robert Downey Jr. (playing Terry, yet another flaming gay boy character for Downey), following Terry’s quite insane pass at the boxer. Surely, this “extemporized” moment felt dangerous for Downey to face such a beating on the set, but honestly, is there anything remotely surprising about Mike Tyson acting out when goaded by a white homosexual (character or not)? Tyson fulfills the conservative white culture’s fantasy that black men are dangerous and wild, and Terry/Downey’s overtures just happen to be the predictable and apparently “comic” stimulus (the film’s sympathy for and understanding of its gay characters are, shall we say, limited).

And yet, for all the racial-sexual uproar available in this assault, the moment after this one says more about Black and White‘s rather unoriginal preoccupation with white women and black men. Terry’s wife Sam (Brooke Shields wearing ridiculous dreads), tries to smooth things over with Tyson: “You are definitely beautiful to look at,” she slavers. Sam’s a professional smoother-over, a wannabe filmmaker who, in the course of videotaping the white kids — including Charlie, Raven, Wren (Elijah Wood) — has followed them to Rich’s crib, where she’s taping all the young hip-hoppers while asking questions about their crossover interests in music, sex, rebellion, and aggression. She’s got a perfect object of her own desire in Tyson (presumably unbeknownst to her). But Tyson, terrified by Sam’s come-on, looks at her like she’s insane (or wonders that she hasn’t heard of his exploits?) and tells her flat-out that he’s on parole and doesn’t need any white bitch messing with him. Unexpectedly, it’s Tyson who comprehends the current cultural topography and his relationship to it like no one else in the film.

Using Sam’s videotaping as its point of entry, Black and White pretends to consider hip-hop’s border-crossing and power-poaching. But the film’s anxieties about interracial and, perhaps more to the point, intergenerational mixing look old-fashioned, or maybe disingenuous. While, as Toback has noted in interviews, hip-hop culture — in all its commercial, political, and social forms — has delivered on one half of the “White Negro”‘s promise (crossing over is now typical rather than not), it’s clear enough that the other, unanswered, half is what’s bothering him (and he’s likely not alone in this concern). White guys are left out of this new sex-and-violence power dynamic, left to be gay or ignored or generally enfeebled by comparison to their amazing black male rivals. The movie never gets over the spectacle of the black man-white girl pairing. And in this, the film is lagging behind both the music it seeks to represent and the performers it uses to get there.

The stakes for these performers are unreasonably high. We see the rap game here in its most poignant and hopeful, and its commercial forms. Cigar is rehearsing a rhyme while nervously waiting around the studio: he wants so badly to be a star, he can taste it; seeing him interact with video and film director Brett Ratner, playing himself, suggests the ways that white and black can interact on art and product, not only in bed. As Raekwon’s American Cream Team puts it on the soundtrack, in “It’s Not a Game,” “We plan our dreams, shit ain’t a game / We don’t run games, we run businesses.” For Rich, businesses are all about dominance. He’s a smalltime Suge Knight, so used to bullying his way into power that he can’t think his way into another dimension. When Rich suspects he’s been betrayed by his longtime friend, college basketball star Dean (Allan Houston of the Knicks), he can’t even imagine having a talk with him. And the movie is afraid and enamored of this limitation, because it makes Rich predictable, the Mike Tyson windup: give him a target and he’s off and thugging.

If Charlie and company are into the hip-hop moment (“These are my niggas,” she says full of gleeful swagger, introducing Sam to her white classmates), most everyone else in the film thinks he or she is making a lifetime decision, declaring a fixed and absolute identity. Again and again, this decision is predicated on getting a white girl’s “information” — Charlie’s, Raven’s, Sam’s, even Terry’s. But get the wrong information, and you — young male, black or white — are doomed. Nice guy Dean is only the most obvious casualty. He’s primed for professional success but living with his blood-sucking anthropology graduate student girlfriend Greta (Claudia Schiffer, in an almost unbearably awkward performance, whether intentional or not). She’s writing her thesis on ancient goddesses (could her function be more obvious?), quite willing to sell him out for research or other, apparently arbitrary, reasons.

Dean’s bad end — for he must suffer one, according to pseudo-anthropologist Toback’s vision of “hip-hop” as an “underworld” where violence is predetermined — begins with his encounter with a desperately insecure white undercover cop Mark Clear (Ben Stiller). The cop gone wrong is an apt metaphor these days, of course, but Clear is especially offensive, in his selfish, self-loathing, conniving short-sightedness and slightness. He certainly makes the film’s moral dynamics more convoluted, in his desires to fit into a white hierarchy that rejects him even more vehemently than it rejects the amazing black man (he embodies the left out part of the “White Negro”). But in the end, these moral dynamics aren’t really so complicated, but instead reduced to who wants to get in whose pants. Surely, there’s a recognizable logic to this reduction, but it’s trite and disappointing, in a film that, on its surface, has so much on its mind.

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