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With: Bijou Phillips, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Allan Houston, Oli "Power" Grant, Raekwon, Method Man, Claudia Schiffer, Mike Tyson, Stacy Edwards, Gaby Hoffmann, Elijah Wood, Jared Leto, Scott Caan, Marla Maples, Joe Pantoliano, James Toback
Written by: James Toback
Directed by: James Toback
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, graphic language, some violence and drug use
Running Time: 98
Date: 09/04/1999

Black and White (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Human Race

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Toback's Black and White is meant to be an incendiary movie,but it's really only just OK. This movie awkwardly juxtaposes moments ofpure energy with a manifesto of old-fashioned ideas and soap-box chattering.

Black and White follows a huge pastiche of characters, much like Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993). The main focus, or problem (according to Toback) seems to be young white kids (played by Bijou Phillips and Scott Caan) imitating black culture. Toback "explores" this "problem" using the gimmick of a documentary filmmaker, played by Brooke Shields, who follows them around with her gay husband (Robert Downey Jr.) in tow. But try as he may, Toback can't come up with a reason for their behavior, other than the obvious one, rebellion.

The rest of the characters follow pretty standard urban plot developments. A crooked cop (Ben Stiller) bribes and blackmails a star basketball player (Allan Houston of the New York Knicks) into turning in his former drug-dealer buddy (Oli "Power" Grant), now a professional hip-hop artist. "Power" is accompanied in the film by Raekwon and Method Man, his real-life cohorts in the great Wu-Tang Clan (who also provide the movie's score). Model Claudia Schiffer plays Houston's girlfriend. And best of all, boxer Mike Tyson plays himself -- with his distinctive vocabulary intact.

All of these characters cross paths sooner or later. But, many of the moments are cliché and do nothing to second-guess the racial hatred problem in America. When the hip hop artists try to book a recording space the white owner gives them a hard time. But, when they come back with a white lawyer, everything is just fine. And nearly every dealing between white characters and black characters feels overwrought.

But, to Toback's credit, he had his cast improvise all of their scenes and some great stuff comes out of this. Huge chunks of the movie deal with conversations and characters and that's when the movie comes alive. Tyson is especially impressive in a legendary scene with Robert Downey Jr. Shields is also very good as the dreadlocked documentarian looking for answers but not finding them, and in the meantime getting some great footage. And when, Phillips, in a moment of clarity, says that what she's doing is most likely a phase and that she will eventually grow out of it, it really rings true.

Toback is on the verge of being a major director. He had an incredible start with his screenplay for The Gambler (1974) and his directorial debut Fingers (1978). His other good work has included Exposed (1983), Two Girls and a Guy (1998), and the screenplay for Bugsy (1991). Those early works were influenced heavily by Dostoyevsky and Toback is still on the lookout for great themes. I think his heart was in the right place with Black and White though it doesn't quite succeed for me. This movie sets out to be Important. But, in sum, it's so awkward that I enjoyed myself only through the performance that made up its scenes and not for itself as a whole.

DVD Details: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and in pan & scan, with two audio mixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 English and Dolby Digital 2.0 English. James Toback provides a commentary track and a video diary. Other extras include deleted scenes, music videos, trailers, photo galleries and talent files.

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