Engaging for its fresh milieu, unexpected mix of personalities and the provocative ideas it tosses around, “Black and White” is more a movie about an intriguing theme than about a good story. As long as James Toback’s semi-improvised look at the interracial hip-hop-oriented scene in New York sticks to its vibrant young characters, it remains naturalistic, edgy and humorous; whenever melodrama intrudes, it seems hokey and contrived. Financed by Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures and recently picked up by Sony Screen Gems, pic was frankly conceived as a look at white kids’ fascination with black culture, and it will be the former group the film will have to attract if it’s to achieve some commercial success, as it’s highly questionable that young black audiences will turn out in heavy numbers for an “outsider’s” look at their own scene, however sympathetic and well-represented it may be.
As lively and amusing as the film is in some ways, it does set up expectations at the outset that are never really delivered upon. After a deliberately startling opening in which two white teenage girls are getting it on with a black guy in Central Park while another watches and children pass by, it appears that the story is going to be centered upon a rap group creating a new album, that the film will deal with the music — where it comes from, how it’s created, what it means — that is so influential and yet remains so foreign to so many people outside its fan base.
Unfortunately, this promising premise becomes lost in the shuffle, as Toback introduces a full deck of other characters and story threads, some of which lead the film far astray of the most interesting subjects it brings up.
At the center of the picture’s spinning wheel is the high-rise apartment of Rich (Power), a sulky, confrontational operator who’s got his finger in numerous enterprises and reacts very badly indeed when he senses others encroaching on his turf. Rich’s spacious crib is the scene of a virtually nonstop party, a place where people come to hang, get high and score chicks, some of whom are young Upper East Side white girls, notably Charlie (Bijou Phillips), one of the teens from the opening scene. There are also white male hangers-on, all of whom adopt black slang, dress and attitude in the hopes of being allowed to share in what they view as the coolest scene around.
Serving to further Toback’s own investigation into the rap/hip-hop/gangsta mind-set is a documentary team headed by Sam (a nose-ringed and dreadlocked Brooke Shields), who constantly interviews kids about their fascination with black culture for a film. Accompanying her everywhere is her flagrantly gay husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr.) who, to put it mildly, doesn’t fit into the mix very comfortably. Despite this device, however, “Black and White” never develops many theories about the white kids’ behavior other than the ho-hum notion that it’s a form of rebellion against their parents, an excursion into another way of life before they settle down to accept what they were born into.
The party scenes, the interludes on the streets when Sam inquires about hip-hop and graffiti, the moments when a connection is made between the characters and the music or some other cultural manifestation — all of this hums with energy across a live social wire that hasn’t often been touched in films thus far. Not only that, but Toback’s direction here has an ease and fluidity that has rarely been evident before; it might even be said that this is the first time his direction is more impressive than his writing, as his bold screenplays usually rep the dominant forces in his films.
Unfortunately, the more obviously constructed drama in the picture is what repeatedly brings it down from its often buoyant surface. One of Rich’s crowd, lanky basketball player Dean (Allan Houston), is approached by a gambler (Ben Stiller) with a tempting cash offer to throw a college game. After hesitating and getting unhelpful advice from his coldly analytical girlfriend Greta (an improbable Claudia Schiffer), he goes through with it, only to be arrested when the gambler turns out to be a cop who’s really after Rich (and who happens to be the beauteous Greta’s former boyfriend).
When Rich gets wind of this, he quickly decides he has to ice his childhood friend, but instead of doing the job himself he turns to a white boy anxious to prove his worth, a nervy kid who just happens to be the son of the DA. It’s all just too much and too contrived, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Stiller doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to pitch his characterization, one that possesses echoes of Toback’s first film, “Fingers.”
Still, there are many grace notes along the way. Shields is dynamic and switched on, better than she’s ever been in a film. Downey is quietly hilarious, and pulls off an audacious scene in which he slyly comes on to none other than Mike Tyson, who is appealing and sweetly amusing in an extended cameo. Another film tyro, Marla Maples, also comes across very well as the DA’s wife.
Power, who put together the soundtrack, lives up to his name with an intensely brooding portrayal, and Houston is as sympathetic as anyone in the picture as the hoopster who should know better.
If “Black and White” had stuck to the music and the social scene rather than getting bogged down in movieish melodrama, it might have had genuine distinction. But it nevertheless has flavors, insights and glancing moments that are fresh and catch the viewer off-guard. Tech credits are sharp.