Black and White

Directed by James Toback
Starring (Alphabetically): Robert Downey Jr., Allan Houston, Jared Leto, Joe Pantoliano, Bijou Phillips, Power, Raekwon, Claudia Schiffer, William Lee Scott, Brooke Shields, Ben Stiller, Eddie Kay Thomas, Mike Tyson, Elijah Wood.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, graphic language, some violence and drug use.

Review by Matt Heffernan
April 7, 2000

An interesting alternative method of filmmaking is to merely write a story, then develop the actual dialogue through improvisation with the actors. Mike Leigh usually uses this approach, which worked very well in Topsy-Turvy -- plus he gets full screenwriting credit and an Academy Award nomination to boot. James Toback's attempt at the same process, however, is far less likely to garner the same attention.

Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) and her husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr.) are making a documentary in New York about affluent white teenagers who choose to emulate and immerse themselves in African-American culture. They listen to hip-hop and spend time hanging out with Rich Bower (Power): a Harlem gangster who also heads a group of rappers called Cream Team.

One member of Cream Team is Dean (Allan Houston), a local basketball player with a future in the NBA. A gambler (Ben Stiller) gives him $50,000 to throw a game. The gambler turns out to be police detective Mark Clear, who has entrapped Dean to testify against Rich. The loyalties in the group, and of Dean's girlfriend (Claudia Schiffer), are put to the test.

The main reason that Black and White doesn't work as well as Leigh's film is the lack of a talented cast. True artists like Downey and Stiller are drowned out by their mediocre colleagues and many non-actors. Houston, of course, is a professional basketball player in real life, and has no business making films. But he is a grand thespian compared to model Schiffer and boxer Mike Tyson (who can barely manage to play himself). How did Toback expect to make this experiment work?

Perhaps he was counting on the power of the story. There are moments where his intents to make a serious film about race relations become clear. Unfortunately, far too much time is spent in repetition of the same themes. The premise about the entrapment is explained no less than three times by three different characters. The fact is, there isn't much at all to Black and White that hasn't been said more clearly or more powerfully by Spike Lee or John Singleton.

I do hope that Toback learns from this experience. He has worked with Downey before (The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy), and together they could make another film in this fashion. They just have to resist the temptation of including a bunch of rappers, athletes, and models in the film. And please, I don't need to see Brooke Shields wearing a nose ring ever again.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Black and White (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Black and White (2000) (NC-17 version) -- VHS
Black and White (2000) (NC-17 version) -- DVD
Black and White: Original Soundtrack -- Compact Disc


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan