Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #31: Black and White (dir by James Toback)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Wednesday, December 7th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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On November 15th, I recorded the 1999 melodrama, Black and White, off of Encore.

Black and White is a film that I’ve seen several times and I’ve always meant to review it.  It’s an attempt to explore the state of race, rap, crime, and sex in the late 20th century.  It’s also a James Toback film, which means that it contains all of the stuff that appears in every James Toback film: a threesome in the park, improvised dialogue, cameos from famous people playing themselves, an obsession with college basketball games, casual sexism, and a lot of talk about why you should never send “a little boy to do a man’s job.”  By his own admission, the white Toback is obsessed with the black experience but, when you watch a James Toback film, you get the feeling that his entire knowledge of African-American culture comes from watching other movies.

In short, Black and White is probably one of the silliest and most misjudged films that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, it’s so misjudged that it’s compulsively watchable.  Though I’m always hesitant to casually toss around the term “guilty pleasure,” that’s exactly what Black and White is.

Black and White tells several different stories, some of which are connected and some of which are not.  Sam Donager (Brooke Shields) is an independent filmmaker who is attempting to make a documentary about white people who try to act black.  Her husband, Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.), is gay and hits on every man (and boy) that he sees.  Sam and Terry start following around a group of privileged white kids who are obsessed with rap music.  Sam asks them if they want to be black.  They say that they’re going through a phase.

One of the kids is named Wren and he’s played by Elijah Wood.  He doesn’t really do much but every time he shows up in the film, you go, “It’s Elijah Wood!”  And then there’s Marty King (Eddie Kaye Thomas) who is the son of the Manhattan District Attorney (Joe Pantoliano).  Marty’s older brother is Will (William Lee Scott) ,who is some sort of low-level criminal.  And finally, the unofficial leader of the kids is Charlie (Bijou Phillips) and she gets to give a long monologue explaining the various uses of the n-word.

(Their teacher, incidentally, is played by Jared Leto.  If you’ve ever wanted to listen to Jared Leto lecture about the relationship between Othello and Iago, this is the film to see.  That said, the whole Othello and Iago lecture is just kinda randomly tossed in and doesn’t really pay off.)

Charlie is one of the many girlfriends of Rich Bower (Power), who is not only an up-and-coming rap producer but he’s also the head of a criminal organization.  (There’s a lengthy and kinda pointless scene where he and his associates demand money from a club manager played by Scott Caan.)  Rich is also friends with Mike Tyson.  Tyson plays himself and he gets to deliver an entire monologue about how Rich should never send a boy to do a man’s job.

But we’re not done!  Rich’s cousin is Dean Carter (Allan Houston), a college basketball player.  Dean is dating an anthropology graduate student (Claudia Schiffer, giving a hilariously terrible performance) who is obsessed with fertility symbols.  Dean is also being blackmailed by a corrupt cop named Mark Clear.  Guess who plays Mark Clear?

BEN FREAKING STILLER!

Needless to say, Ben Stiller is massively miscast.  He delivers he lines in his trademark comedic fashion, which makes it next to impossible to take him seriously as any sort of threat.  He also has a backstory that is needlessly complex but at least it allows him to say, “I’m Saul of Fucking Tarsus!”

Anyway, almost the entire film was improvised, which is one of those things that probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  A few of the actors do well with the improvisation.  Stiller may be miscast but at least he can come up with stuff to say.  Robert Downey, Jr.’s character may seem out-of-place but again, Downey knows how to keep things interesting.  But the rest of the cast seems to be a bit stranded so we end up with a lot of lengthy scenes of characters struggling to make some sort of sense of Toback’s storyline.

It’s obvious that James Toback felt that this film had something important to say but, instead of any insight, it can only offer up the occasionally strange-as-Hell scene.

Like this scene, for instance, in which Mike Tyson literally attempts to kill Robert Downey, Jr:

Or this weird little scene between Ben Stiller and Joe Pantoliano, which is dominated by Stiller’s odd delivery of his lines:

Or the closing montage, which is actually rather well-put together and makes great use of Michael Fredo’s Free:

Sadly, the video above ends before it gets to the part where we see Claudia Schiffer on a date with Mike Tyson, telling him about fertility symbols.

Anyway, Black and White is one of those films that wants to say something despite not being sure what.  Again, it may ultimately be rather silly but it’s still compulsively watchable.

(For the record, Marla Maples — who also appeared in Maximum Overdrive and was married to future President Donald Trump when this movie was made — has a cameo as a character named Muffy.  We live in a strange fucking world, don’t we?)

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