Reviewing a movie with such a loaded topic presents some difficulty for a reviewer of any color – and how to refer to the various “thems” without seeming to be, well, implying something? The one thing I can say about Black and White that anyone would agree with, is that it didn’t really explore the topic as it was purported to. The film has a fascination with rich white kids who glamorize the black gangsta life (to the point that they call each other their “niggaz,” which was vehemently defined as separate from the very hot word “niggers”), and some semblance of interest in the black gangstas’ own reaction to their pale shadows. Certainly, many of the characters seem to come off trying to be colorblind, claiming to be attracted by the pure lifestyle, but then contradict themselves constantly.
Rich white kids put on this dropped, Harlem-is-my-town show for their parents, but only socialize with extremely wealthy black gangstas, and dis their fellow gangsta-worshipping boyfriends. A white social anthropologist (Claudia Schiffer, no stranger to being objectified) is in a relationship with a black man, claiming that she is color blind, that she loves the man – but really seeks danger (and, as a privileged NYU grad, associates danger with blackness) and ultimately is more shallow than anyone. The “wiggaz” are all extremely wealthy and well-connected, and their less-fortunate classmates of all colors wonder what the appeal is in pretending to have come from being poor, or acting ignorant, or whatever it is. A white filmmaker in a marriage of denial to a gay man studies these strange people, without noticing the bizarreness of her own life. Oh, did I mention it’s Brooke Shields with the nouveau-Indian look of a pierced nose and semi-dreadlocks, who lives in a penthouse?
The movie carries itself like a documentary, then gets bogged down in some kind of plot (which is actually reserved for the African-American half of the cast plus Schiffer), making any kind of real exploration seem even more contrived than it was. A classroom scene where a teacher asks kids about what they like to do can be real; a neurotic outside white guy (Ben Stiller) doing a quick wrap-up of everyone’s psychology is not. The most likable characters seem to be forgotten in favor of weird stunt-casting like Mike Tyson, making esoteric reference to his own life and past. The thing is, while the movie doesn’t spark much in itself, it does generate conversation, and is therefore worthy of viewing. It’s racist in some ways (the only black character who is not a gold-toothed rap hood is a mincing Oreo writer for Vanity Fair), OK, in many ways – what about white kids who “act like white kids” but enjoy hip hop music? Where does the culture (formed from the music) begin and the skin color end?
While I was watching it I jotted down a number of questions of my own about identity and what defines us, our preferences or our heritage, yadda yadda yadda, and then lost all my notes. Is this typically white premenstrual female, human, or am I emulating some other ethnicity by being unusually irresponsible with my notes? The movie seems to draw some conclusions like sexually adventurous girls can only find satisfaction with the more raw men of color – but what the hell is that? Their white boyfriends are being played by Elijah Wood and Eddie Kaye Thomas, the most white bread boys possible, yet who also adhere to (and mingle with) the black community’s standard of behavior. What about Thomas’ brother, the only actual criminal in the movie? And how about all the various ways black and white people get out of trouble or evade their responsibilities in this movie?
Perhaps now was not the time to make this movie – yet I cannot imagine it being made earlier than this. Mel Brooks got away with some serious racial commentary buried under humor (co-written with Richard Pryor) back in the seventies, but this movie tries so hard not to offend while still trying to make a point, that it ends up frustrating you with what could have been.
MPAA Rating R for violence, sexuality, and language.
Release date 4/5/00
Time in minutes 98
Director James Toback
Studio Screen Gems