The Inspired Ready to Rumble; The Important Black and White

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Black and White directed by James Toback Before 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 White'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 Room 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 mood.