Black and White

(James Toback, USA, 2000)


Black and White is a puzzling movie.

Its opening image – the camera picking up the random path of several anonymous characters who blunder into a dramatic situation – sets the overall rhythm and method. The film cultivates a floating, observational regard, fascinated but detached, hoping to suspend moral judgments indefinitely.

Everybody either wanders or follows in this story: a bunch of white kids follow their black heroes into clubs and homes; a documentary filmmaker, Sam (Brooke Shields), tags along behind the kids. Dean (Allan Houston), a gifted basketball player, is approached by the shady Mark (Ben Stiller) with a bribe to throw a game; Greta (Claudia Schiffer), who has been intimately involved with both men, takes this privileged knowledge to Rich (Oli ‘Power’ Grant), a criminal looking for a new career in music.

Eventually, a slim plot builds up from this cumulative pattern of interactions and encounters. But the storyline is just a necessary hook; writer-director James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy, 1997) is interested, above all, in the intricate texture of how diverse people from every level of society react to each other in unfamiliar surroundings and situations – and the cultural tensions and developments that these reactions expose.

Toback has long been obsessed with the erotic and violent clashes of black and white culture in America. His first (and still best) film, Fingers (1978), delved deeply into twisted white fantasies about black male prowess. All his films present characters who are (as he describes them) “adrift, in transition from one unrealised identity to another” – and either learning to enjoy that drift, or psychotically attempting to freeze its momentum.

On many levels, Black and White is a riposte to Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) – to which Toback reportedly contributed in its early stages of development. Where Beatty’s politician took his infatuation with black culture into the realm of schizoid hallucination – metamorphosing into an amateur rap artist in the public eye – Toback investigates the world of rich, white kids whose desire to ‘be black’ expresses itself mainly in hip talk, hanging out and having sex with the Other.

In Black and White – as distinct from Bulworth – there is no black ghetto. There is talk of a ‘wall’ where blacks gather, but it turns out to be as welcoming to all races and classes as a church social. Toback has deliberately zeroed in on a relatively affluent sector of the black subculture which seems, in some ways, not so different from the middle class homes that their white comrades seek to escape. This blurring is important, because the film is primarily about social mobility.

Such mobility allows a play with identity. No one in this film wants to be stuck with their given social identity. Blacks want mainstream success; whites want the freedom to slum it downtown. Other factors constructing identity – age, sexual preference, occupation – are equally up for grabs. Apart from the occasional pointed question or expression of self-doubt, there is virtually no racial conflict, resentment or exploitation on display in this microcosmic melting pot. The spectre of Otherness – and the entire social melodrama it implies – fades quickly and painlessly.

At times Black and White evokes memories of provocative films by Larry Clark (Kids, 1995) or Abel Ferrara (The Blackout, 1997). But Toback is at pains to eschew sensationalism of almost any kind: there’s little violence, crime or drugs, and almost no thrill of social transgression. There is sexual experimentation, but (apart from the splendid opening threesome in Central Park in full daylight) it carries little sense of illicitness or danger.

In fact, the mood on these streets is so menace-free and casual that the film borders on becoming a comedy of modern relationships in the mode of Ophüls’ La Ronde (1950): a six-months-later epilogue shows us the characters merrily recombined in new lifestyle experiments. Amid such frolics, the fact that a central character’s death seems to have little impact on anyone registers ambiguously: is this Toback’s critical comment on the callousness and amorality of a new social milieu, or a celebration of its lighthearted freedoms?

Black and White is driven by an incessant, multi-layered stream of voices and music. Experienced primarily at this sonic level, Toback’s message is less ambiguous, more utopian, espousing self-expression over hardline politics – even with regards to rap itself, which is offered as an international, unspecific cultural language. The musical minestrone which once made Toback’s films sound so surreal – a disconcerting mix of classical selections and doo-wop hits – has, uncannily, now become almost homely and reassuring in our age of sampling.

Unfortunately, for all its undeniably curious elements, Black and White, as a film, is a 1960s-style happening that never quite happens. Like Henry Jaglom’s Someone to Love (1987) or Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994), it gathers a large bunch of personalities – non-professionals more or less playing themselves and known actors deliberately cast against type – and arranges them in a succession of semi-improvised situations.

The result, sadly, is an excess of underwhelming, talk-heavy scenes during which the camera never stops cruising – as if to desperately compensate for the lack of movement, action or intrigue anywhere else. Since Toback is keen to present this as a film of ideas, he multiplies didactic occasions – classroom discussions, Shields’ interviews, Schiffer reading from her PhD – where characters expound sound-byte banalities about sex, race, class and identity.

It is a very uneven movie. I was fascinated by Mike Tyson’s powerful turn and intrigued by Stiller’s embodiment of a modern Dostoyevskean anti-hero searching recklessly for what he calls redemption. But I was bored by the so-called drama surrounding the marriage between straight Sam and gay Terry (Robert Downey Jr.).

Like a number of recent movies that survey a panorama of social types and situations (Magnolia [1999], Wonderland [2000], Beautiful People [1999], Sample People  [2000]), Black and White displays an inherently grand, even pretentious ambition – to capture the zeitgeist in a nutshell. This mode tends to bring out the worst in American directors (beginning with Altman and Nashville, 1975), who almost unfailingly become bombastic and parochial – even as they excoriate their homeland.

Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) – a calmer, more lucid and modest picture of contemporary racial, musical and social encounters – travels further into a brave, new world than Toback’s hit-and-miss, self-important muckraking can manage on this occasion.

© Adrian Martin September 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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