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by: Michael Dequina

The trailers for James Toback's Black and White make it look like a run-of-the-mill 'hood drama, but Toback has a deeper concern in mind. As the title suggests, his film wants to explore the relations between blacks and whites, namely the influence of hip-hop culture on white youths--this issue in addition to telling a crime story as a hook. His intention is noble, but it's in Toback's execution that he manages to fail in everything he sets out to do.

Toback makes a fundamental miscalculation in his exploration of hip-hop-influenced white kids. While he does stick with a fairly large core of characters (played by Bijou Phillips, William Lee Scott, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffmann, and Eddie K. Thomas) as they are followed by a filmmaker (Brooke Shields) doing a documentary on the subject, the focus of this group is narrow. The two characters that are given the most attention--the ones played by Phillips, Scott, and Thomas--are from wealthy families, and while they say otherwise, it's too easy to read their embrace of hip-hop culture as an act of rebellion against their strict parents. Where are the hip-hop-loving white kids from lower-income families, the ones who can best relate to rap's common theme of the ghetto life?

Toback has slightly better luck with the more traditional cops-and-crooks plot thread, which served as the main selling point in the trailer. A college hoops star (Allan Houston of the New York Knicks) gets caught accepting a bribe to throw a game, and the only way he can get himself off the hook is to rat out a childhood friend (Power), a gangsta with aspirations in rap music. Ben Stiller, as the police detective on the case, gives the story a manic urgency that it would not otherwise have, for the inexperience of two other key players--Houston and Claudia Schiffer, who plays his girlfriend--shows up too clearly on the screen. But better performances would not be able to offset the story's unsatisfying resolution.

Similarly, some smaller pleasures to be found in Black and White cannot justify the excess baggage that comes with them. The much-discussed, and indeed memorable, mid-film scene between Robert Downey Jr. (playing Shields' gay husband) and Mike Tyson (playing himself) isn't worth having to sit through Downey's indulgent theatrics the rest of the way--especially in the woeful climactic scene between him and an even worse Shields. Throwaway cameos, from everyone from Method Man to Brett Ratner, provide fleeting interest but don't add much to the mix aside from clutter--which contributes to how one most easily remembers Black and White as being: a mess.

RATING: ** (out of *****)


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