Power Prism 

* Black and White (R)
Palm Pictures

How many times in recent years have you heard the big bass of some serious rap coming toward you at 35 mph, looked up expecting to see some big black dudes wearing gang colors, and instead, out gets a little white guy with big pants falling off his scrawny butt? Just like in the '60s, when hippie culture was youth culture, today, hip hop fills the same niche. But, as writer/director James Toback repeatedly shows in his film Black and White, the fascination of so many people with black, poor, urban, violent culture has some big problems.

Toback has some ambitious goals. He wants to show many facets of the black and white experience and so creates several interlocking stories surrounding black gangster Rich Bower (played by hip hop star, Power, a member of Wu Tang Clan). Power's character is the visual and (im)moral center of this film, and the actor lives up to his name. Power has an absolutely magnetic screen presence that is used to its utmost in several scenes where he lounges around his apartment while courtiers pay homage to him in various ways.

In Power's orbit are a whole panoply of recognizable contemporary characters. There's his good buddy Cigar (played by Raekwon, also of Wu Tang Clan) who embraces the violence of the gangster life at the same time as he writes sweet longing lyrics extolling the virtues of the straight life and paying taxes. Rich's best buddy from childhood is Dean (Allan Houston), who has escaped the hood through basketball (what else?) and enough hard work to land him at Columbia University. Poverty and greed tempt him to throw a basketball game when offered 50 grand by a white gambler (Ben Stiller). Dean's girlfriend is played by Claudia Schiffer, an anthropology graduate student whose fascination with race means she gets a little too close to her subjects. Rich shares his territory with an Italian gangster who calls him a "good guy," which mostly means someone who does business in a way he understands. And don't forget Mike Tyson who serves as an underworld advisor and moral heavy.

Circling all these is a gaggle of white teenagers from major money on the Upper East Side, all of whom want to be black and so adopt the bandy-necked Brooklyn inflection of kids from the 'hood. "I don't know what they want from me," Rich says. "Some kind of life force, I guess. I want information from them." The girls are ready to trade sex for it (and there are some serious sex scenes in this film), the boys, whatever else they can muster. Circling them is documentary filmmaker Brooke Shields (in dreadlocks, no less) and her gay, and very funny, husband (Robert Downey, Jr.).

If all of this sounds a little confusing, it is. In his attempt to show so many facets of racial coexistence and coadaptation, Toback bit off a little more than he could comfortably chew. To examine this huge range of possible permutations of race and class and gender, of aspiration and rebellion, of love and betrayal, is more than any single movie could hope to accomplish on its own. What results is more a series of snapshots than a coherent narrative.

Nevertheless, despite a few shortcomings, Black and White is an interesting and often powerful film. This is no Driving Miss Daisy where everyone learns a lesson about race and ultimately ends up OK. Toback and his cast understand way too much about the character of race, gender and class in this country to paint such a rosy picture. That in itself is a good enough reason to go see this film. No matter who you are, I'd be surprised if you didn't find at least a partial portrait of yourself in Black and White, although you won't be flattered by what you see.


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