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BLACK AND WHITE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robert Downey Jr., Gaby Hoffman, Allan Houston, Joe Pantoliano, Bijou Phillips, Power, Raekwon, Claudia Schiffer, Brooke Shields, Ben Stiller, Mike Tyson, Elijah Wood
Director:  James Toback
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia/Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  September 26, 2000

Film ***

James Toback’s Black and White is an apple that didn’t fall very far from the Robert Altman tree.  In it, he and his cast explore the hip-hop culture, what it means to be a part of it, and most importantly, how and why white kids are growing up influenced by it and becoming a part of it.  At least, that’s part of what the film is about.

In all honesty, this is a film so big in ambition, I think director and audience alike are left a little confused at the end.  It’s a picture that asks many questions, and through simple, honest exploration, tries to find the answers.  It doesn’t find everything it’s looking for.  But the journey is quite an experience, and is enriching in and of itself.  I suppose if we don’t walk away with all the answers, that means there’s still uncharted territory out there for us to explore on our own time.

I’ve rarely seen such an eccentric cast as the one assembled for this movie.  There are regular actors, like Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller.  Then there are sports stars like boxer Mike Tyson and basketball player Allan Houston.  You have hip-hop artists, like Power and Raekwon of the Wu Tang Clan, plus numerous others making cameos as themselves.  There are models-turned-actresses like Brooke Shields and Claudia Schiffer.  Then there are celebrity offspring thrown in the mix as well, such as Bijou Phillips (daughter of John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas) and Scott Caan, son of James Caan. 

Toback then took this rather eclectic bunch and made his movie from a few simple ideas.  I learned from the short video diary on this disc that his style was often to work from a concept:  for example, Terry (Downey Jr.), a gay film producer, coming on to Mike Tyson, playing himself.  No script; just improvisation and exploration.  This style is largely why the film doesn’t always stumble across the answers it seeks, but as mentioned, the investigation is really the most fascinating part.

I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid any kind of plot summary in this review.  One reason is that the story and scope of characters are rather large and involved, with connections between people slowly and methodically being revealed as the picture progresses.  Another is that, after viewing the picture myself with no pre-conceived notions as to who was supposed to be whom and what directions the multiple plots were heading toward, I’m convinced that is the best way.  To know something is supposed to happen later in the story and be waiting for it would definitely be the wrong way to see this movie.

I will touch upon some of the more interesting and central characters, however, along with the actors portraying them.  Rich Bower (Power) is an on-again, off-again criminal trying to make an honest turn as a rap impresario.  One of his friends is a local promising basketball star, Dean (Houston).  The moral dilemma that erupts within their relationship is one of the story’s driving forces.  Considering that neither man is an “actor” per se, they actually offer the two best performances in the movie.

Sam and Terry Donager (Shields and Downey Jr.) are rather silly documentarians.  Sam’s dream project is a study of why white middle-to-upper class kids are embracing the black hip-hop culture as their own.  These characters are more or less a dramatic tool—their profession allows them to be at the right places at the right times along the way for pivotal plot moments.

Mark (Stiller, in a completely straight dramatic role) is a man with a proposition.  Greta (Schiffer) is working on a philosophy thesis about the role of race perceptions in modern society.  Charlie (Phillips) is a kid who might be embracing the rap lifestyle as a way of rebelling against her rigid parents and her clueless boyfriend (Wood).  And Mike Tyson is Mike Tyson, naturally, and though he may not be an actor, some of his scenes are the most memorable ones.  His willingness to speak about his legal problems in front of the camera is edgy and a little disturbing.  Also quite effective.

The film poses the questions from both white and black sides:  why all the crossover?  Is it a good sign for the future of race relations?  Is it a passing fad?  “What do the white kids want from us?” one of the rappers ponders.  Another chides him, reminding him that white kids, like black kids, are all different, and it’s wrong to just lump them all together.  On the other side, we see the white kids looking in awe at the hip hop culture as something dangerous and rebellious.  These are artists who speak their minds forcefully, carry themselves with a certain swagger, and can maintain the illusion of “keeping it real” despite the money, cars, women, and houses (Rich has a terrific home layout, with a widescreen TV set I’D like to have!).

But as I mentioned, these questions are only the tip of the iceberg.  They’re a jumping off point for the film, which finds that these questions lead into more expansive and complicated territory for the characters.  It explores other forms of prejudice, like homophobia and misogyny.  It also ventures into some troubled moral waters, from which answers don’t surface easily. 

All of these aspects made me admire the film, despite its mixtures of successes and failures along the way.  Not everything works.  But it never loses its sense of honesty or adventure, or perhaps most of all, its sense of courage in its willingness to probe some unknown waters in search of potential buried treasure.  Though it doesn’t always come up with gold, the quest is still more than worthwhile.

Video **1/2

Early in the film, the picture suffers from overly saturated colors.  Yellows are way too strong, giving every image a distracting, unnatural look, soft borders, and a LOT of bleeding.  But as the movie progresses, these tints give way to more realistic colors, sharper images, and much more beautiful images.  A scene involving the opening of a night club is a particularly good mixture of sharp images, lights and darks, and a rich, well contained color palate.  I’m not sure if the look early on was intentional, but those moments can be compensated for by turning the color down on your TV or monitor a click or two.  Compression is a non-issue here:  no grain, shimmer, chroma noise or other artifacts, and the print itself is also quite clean. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio track is quite good, though not quite as dynamic as I would have thought.  Dialogue and music both sound clean, clear, and perfectly rendered—there’s just not a lot of difference in volume between them.  The subwoofer helps the hip-hop soundtrack deliver good bass, and the surrounds provide occasional bits of ambient effects, like strange echoes, street noises, and crowd voices.  Between the front and rear speakers, the sound balances out just about perfectly for a fully dimensional listening experience.

Features ***1/2

This is a pretty loaded disc from CST, starting with a commentary track from writer/director Toback that I wish had been a little better.  It’s a little sparse and he speaks with a slow, tired voice that doesn’t express his ideas as boldly as his camera does, nor is the track nearly as insightful as I would have liked.  There are also three trailers, two deleted scenes (but not the ones originally cut to obtain an R rating), two music videos, a four minute but informative Video Diary featurette, and two extras that aren’t listed on the box:  talent files, and a music-only audio track.

Summary:

Black and White plays with all the integrity of an indie film that happens to boast a top notch cast of well known names, even if they aren’t all known for being actors.  It doesn’t always succeed, but its raw, straightforward style and piercing inquisitiveness make it quite a compelling, thoughtful journey for the adventurous movie lover.