In James Toback’s Black and White, Bijou Phillips, as a rich Manhattan teenager, cocks her head and speaks with lewd gangsta arrogance, casually describing herself and her friends as ”niggaz.” This sort of character has been a gag in a dozen mediocre teen comedies. But in Toback’s fevered vision, Phillips’ thug-life bravado isn’t a pose — it’s simply a way of being. Black and White is a pulsating snapshot of America caught in a mad, liberating identity crisis. Toback fills the screen with actors, rappers, models, and other celebrities, many of them playing off their real-life personas, and the result is a semi-improvisatory collage in which black and white cultures aren’t just integrated but synergized, patched into each other’s souls, fused by sex, money, media, and — most powerfully — the revolutionary current of hip-hop.
Toback is like Godard spinning two turntables, and he snakes a clever suspense plot through the gabby, supercharged atmosphere. Some of his casting stunts, however, work better than others. Brooke Shields, as a documentary filmmaker, and Robert Downey Jr., as her winsome gay husband, are an amusing comic team, and Oli ”Power” Grant, from the Wu-Tang Clan, has a formidable presence as Rich, a Harlem gangsta out to turn himself into a rap mogul. But Knicks star Allan Houston, as the college basketball star duped by a high-strung cop (Ben Stiller) into ratting out his old pal Rich, is studied and awkward, and so is Claudia Schiffer as his grad-student girlfriend. Or maybe it’s just Schiffer’s role, which, like the movie itself, ends up a bit off the rails. For a director with such 21st-century ideas about race, Toback, when it comes to women, can be awfully retrograde. His greatest coup was getting Mike Tyson to play himself, with undercurrents of twinkly mockery, as the ultimate bruiser god. In Black and White’s brave new world of hip-hop-ruled America, he’s the funniest, most disquieting role model of the year. B+