Blaxploitation hits big screens again

Review: `Black and White' exploits cultural clashes and race relations rather than exploring them.

April 05, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Black and White" is as nasty and cynical a film as any to come down the pike this year.

Starting with a raunchy and gratuitous scene of three people having sex in Central Park and devolving into a free-for-all of jittery, aimless improvisation, James Toback's latest movie feels less and less like a film and more like an excuse for the director to work out yet another batch of his notoriously varied sexual issues.

With its cast of rap stars, young up-and-comers and slumming super-models, "Black and White" is supposed to be an edgy, urban exploration of affluent teen-agers' co-opting of hip-hop culture.

Squeaky-voiced Bijou Phillips plays Charlie, a poor little rich girl who with her best friend makes a hobby of servicing rap star Rich (played by the Wu-Tang Clan's Power). Brooke Shields plays an earnest documentary-maker who trails Charlie and her cultural-tourist friends through black life as if it were a theme park designed by Kangol and Timberlane.

None of this leads anywhere in a film that reduces pertinent issues of race and cultural collision to a collective case of jungle fever. Toback seems most interested in his black male characters' sexual prowess and violent menace. White women are reduced to courtesans or fools, and black women are almost entirely absent.

Nothing of any moment is said or done in this meandering, self-indulgent film, where such conventions as narrative and character fall by the wayside, presumably too square for the likes of Toback. The result is a movie that works much too hard at being "street," and it reads like the grasping attempt of a superannuated hipster to hang on to the fading light of his youth.

No amount of Wu-Tang Clan members, of which "Black and White" has two, can make Toback any more authentic. It only took one, the RZA, to help make Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" the utterly moving and artistically honest exploration of race that it is.

"Black and White" isn't helped by some ludicrous and often offensive cameo appearances. Claudia Schiffer plays a cultural anthropologist who quotes Henry Kissinger (hey, a girl's gotta stretch), and Mike Tyson's reference to his past rape conviction is played for laughs.

More appalling still is the befuddled, obviously ill presence of Robert Downey Jr. The two have collaborated productively in the past, but Downey is exploited in "Black and White" in the most abusive fashion. Most of "Black and White" is an example of mortifyingly bad taste, but watching Downey's blank, lost stare, and realizing that Toback did nothing but turn a camera on it, feels downright criminal.

`Black and White'

Starring Bijou Phillips, Power, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller

Directed by James Toback

Rated R (strong sexuality, graphic language, some violence and drug use)

Running time 100 minutes

Released by Screen Gems

Sun score *

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