The Inspired Ready to Rumble; The Important Black and White

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Black and
by James Toback

Black and White turns into a Brett Ratner-style music video during its
end credits, director-writer James Toback exposes a world of betrayal, cultural
pretense and moral chaos. You’ll never be able to watch Yo! MTV Raps
the same way again. Toback follows a group of white east-side prep school teens
(some played by second-generation celeb kids Bijou Phillips, Gaby Hoffman) as
they pursue glamour, sex and danger via hardcore black rappers who are themselves
social aspirants (played by first-generation members of Wu-Tang Clan, Oli "Power"
Grant and Corey "Raekwon" Woods). Focusing on class oppositions at
the heart of contemporary hiphop culture–addressing the mainstream fascination
MTV promotes but never examines–Toback shows today’s white-black symbiosis
ain’t exactly pretty.

Still, it’s
seductive. Toback uses that phenomenon to translate an obsession in his own
head and white America’s subconscious–interracial sex as brazen and
controversial as it can be imagined: in the opening scene, two white girls submit
to a black youth in Central Park. This introduction evokes one of the prime
social horrors of the past decade–the 1989 media-hyped Central Park wilding
incident. But it also dovetails director Marcus Nispel’s own wilding answer-video
Can We Talk (for Tevin Campbell), which purposely used Central Park to
depict an innocent, romantic black teen idyll. Toback ups the tension with a
derisive Wu-Tang rap, "Daddy’s little girl/Look at Daddy’s little
girl"–stirring the scene’s implicit transgressions, taunting
unspoken racial complacency. (It contrasts the Vivaldi heard during a hokey,
middle-class dinner scene.) Everything Americans don’t want to talk about
today gets thrown into this lush political jungle–particularly phantoms
about race and the secrets of economic power, bulwarks that are only violated
by sexual urge.

Young preppie
Charlie (Phillips) isn’t concerned about her park transgressions; like
Will (William Lee Scott), another affluent wannabe and son of a district attorney,
she’s just happy to hang with the bloods. In literature class, Charlie’s
teacher (Jared Leto) reads a quote from Delacroix (pace Godard’s Pierrot
le Fou
): "Young people are always given to what is wild instead of
what is reasonable." This cultural amour fou is also true for dilettantes
Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) and her gay husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr.),
who videotape Charlie and her friends’ escapades with a rap crew. Rich
(Power) and Cigar (Raekwon) have started a group called American Cream Team
to make their move out of street crime into record biz legitimacy. Their ambitions
are mirrored by Rich’s friend Dean (Allan Houston), a college basketball
player dating a white sociology student Greta (Claudia Schiffer) but lured into
crime by Mark (Ben Stiller), a shady gambler. Toback’s crisscrossing stories,
made up of provocative and lightly satirical moments, suggest the starting point
for even deeper investigation.

In his own
way Toback has made a hiphop equivalent to Robert Altman’s Nashville,
serving up the absurdities and trenchancies of American social clash. Where
Black and White is less expansive than the great Nashville, it
compensates with oneiric compulsion. As photographed by David Ferrara (sometimes
with too-shallow focus), the low-budget Black and White may be the most
sumptuous movie ever shot in New York City–it looks French, like Trop
de Bonheur
, Cedric Kahn’s Parisian-set survey of ethnic tension among
urban adolescents. Grasping this look is esthetically crucial to Black and
’s sui generis effect. Though it takes semidocumentary form, it’s
a highly sensual fantasy of the ethnic tumult white New York filmmakers (Sidney
Lumet, Neil Simon) usually simplify as humorous rancor. From the opening white-on-black
threesome parodying Adam and Eve to a later black-on-white threesome where chocolate
female thighs tangle with hairy white male thighs, Toback presents each of his
social, ideological propositions with orgiastic sensitivity.

Floating, enraptured
camerawork saves Black and White from the twisted pornography of Kids:
Toback doesn’t hide behind Larry Clark’s dubious "documentation."
His observational conceit becomes visionary sociology when the white kids’
urban safari views the city at night from the Staten Island Ferry, then cruises
past a luminous Statue of Liberty. And his characters’ language (including
the interplay of black-white, male-female vocal textures) enunciates social
issues with dreamlike clarity. Toback contrasts a prep school colloquy ("You
just don’t want to be what your race is supposed to be") with the
Cream Team’s street discussion ("They think they gonna get some kinda
life force from us"). He then dives into intellectual conundrum when a
teacher quotes Iago, "I am not what I am," or Greta holds forth on
the abolition of racial categories. Her spiel is further contrasted with a rapper’s
query: "Can you look inside and embrace your soul?" Both rap and academic
analyses charge every scene.

One of Toback’s
most remarkable details–and easily passed over if one is caught up in the
audacious exoticism–is the Afro-Rican girl, not part of Charlie’s
clique, who interrupts the boastful white kids to say, "Not everyone in
this room is white; I have friends in the hood and we’re trying to get
out." Toback does an extraordinary thing by lingering on the girl’s
look of frustration when no one in the classroom responds to her objection and
good sense. I’ve felt this frustration and isolation at National Society
of Film Critics meetings where a commonsense statement chills the fatuous enthusiasm
heating up the roomful of people hell-bent on acting out their fantasies. America’s
cross-cultural, socially mobile circus is sometimes too excited about appropriation–about
privilege–to ever stop to consider any complicated response. And
that’s how today’s hiphop rolls–this usurped and commercialized
movement now belongs to white Americans as much as to black Americans.

Since Alicia
Silverstone and her Clueless friends drove through Beverly Hills in an
open-air Jeep chanting Coolio’s "Rollin’ Wit my Homies"
there’s been multicultural delusion that most people have not questioned.
Toback, however, has the effrontery to stare down this national hiphop-influenced
communion. Clueless’ writer-director Amy Heckerling expressed obvious
(and harmless) delight, but Toback, as always, takes a psychodramatic approach.
He exposes private thoughts and then dramatizes them. The method resembles Paul
Schrader’s tabloid spiritualism in Hardcore, American Gigolo
and especially Patty Hearst, which veered off into lonely psychosis
(and some critics prefer that detachment from realities of class and sex competition).
But this time Toback’s preoccupations (more complicated than Schrader’s)
relate to how American pop culture operates. The youths in Black and White
are still playing out the race, class and sex fascination that Toback’s
mentor, Norman Mailer, first outlined more than 40 years ago. And though critics
(and some viewers) resent the social, sexual and racial ideas Toback dredges
up, this also means that he’s onto something embarrassingly real.

No wonder critics
who are comfortable with the bohemian fantasies of Ghost Dog or Boiler
dislike Black and White. Toback doesn’t leave any of us
comfortable with the presumptions we hold about black license, white rapacity,
or vice versa. Ghost Dog indulged fantasies of black criminality while
Boiler Room flattered notions of white superiority. (The Village Voice
dismisses Toback’s violence as "completely without consequence,"
yet venerates Jarmusch’s black serial killer!) With a boldness that amounts
to intellectual and moral heroism, Toback delves into both underground and mainstream
illusions, arousing their ambiguities. His denouement resembles the father-son
conflict of Boiler Room, but Toback is more honest. Black and White
ends with a frightening illustration of race and class power–Will and his
D.A. father’s white retrenchment (in the name of family) leaves the story’s
blacks under the gun, yet celebrating their objectification/victimization in
a Miami thong-song video clip.

Comparing fractured
white families to haphazard black gangs is a facile opposition, but Toback reveals
the truth of social deprivation, exploitation and institutional pressure that
besets black America–to which white interlopers are usually ignorant, and
which black opportunists like Spike Lee frequently muddle. Black and White
might have been a stronger movie with better rap artists (Public Enemy, Geto
Boys) at its center, but even their participation (or the Beastie Boys’)
would certainly have been a different movie. Wu-Tang’s presence
and Lil’ Kim’s mention reveal the sexual nature of white exoticism
because they insist on no clear political or emotional address; their hodgepodge
lyrics of retribution and received rebellion cohere with hiphop’s inchoate
extension of black degenerate archetypes. (When Raekwon boasts, "This music
is so influential and so new there is not a wall built that can hold it down,"
it’s just blather proving Wu-Tang’s naivete about the treacherousness
of capitalism and racism.) Too bad Ol’ Dirty Bastard didn’t participate;
he’d probably freak the whole concept, whereas Method Man, when meeting
Sam Donager and the preppies at S.I.’s The Wall, simply puffs up from adoration.

Toback discloses
the white privilege and black frustration that, via hiphop, have been bred into
successive generations. His American Dream is a nightmare of Seedy Jews and
Depraved Negroes and Opportunistic Whites. Yet unlike Spike Lee, Toback keeps
amazing dramatic and moral balance; he resists reporting on the underclass (which
was so patronizing in Menace II Society, He Got Game and Nick
Gomez’s ludicrous Illtown). And Toback’s self-revealing examination
of white society gives this film integrity. Partially redoing his own screenplay
for Karel Reisz’s 1974 The Gambler, Toback uses weasely Ben Stiller
to confront his own egotism. As the gambler/cop Mark, Stiller’s Saul of
Tarses routine (seeking to change his nature by changing his identity) links
the wigger phenomenon to older, scarier complexes. Tempting Dean with a comical
sex-money routine, making deals with the patriarchal D.A. or striking out (twice)
with the tall, duplicitous blonde Greta, Mark goes through a spiritual crisis
reflecting the same moral confusion as the high-living youngsters. (Fast-talking
Mark is himself a gangsta rapper.) After setting a murder in motion, Mark’s
final phone conversation with Rich is a soul confrontation with himself. Power
gives Rich a deep bass voice (the sound of masculine prowess), yet Toback’s
post-murder closeup of Rich shows him to be shockingly boyish, a youth limited
by his own aspirations and his culture’s perceptions. That’s hiphop’s
existential trap; it ensnares everyone.

Of the film’s
improvising performers (including cameos by Brett Ratner and columnist George
Wayne), only Mike Tyson, by virtue of life experience and legend, galvanizes
the film’s issues. Affecting a Tyson documentary, Toback (as with Jim Brown
in Fingers) keeps pushing the inflammatory possibilities. When Downey’s
Terry makes a pass at Tyson, Toback dares present the White Negro’s ultimate,
exoticizing, dick suck fantasy–bronzed. One could argue whether Toback
sees through Tyson’s machismo, yet he’s smart enough to show that
Tyson sees through homeboys’ non-ethics about manhood by his advice to
Rich–"I’ve made too many mistakes to be a man known for his wisdom."
That could almost be the infamous filmmaker’s self-projection. Toback passes
one of the toughest tests of artists: seeing himself in all his characters.
You want to applaud his brave defiance of the self-serving complications
in today’s too-savvy racial interactions. That’s preferable to the
wigger pretense demonstrated by Ghost Dog or the ghetto intoxication
of Hype Williams’ Belly. And more difficult than even the ethnographic
route of Charlie Ahearn’s admirable Wild Style. Black and White
is more shocking than those films and more serious. It eloquently expresses
what’s inside Toback, but like the best rap records it challenges the national