[Screen It]

(2000) (Oli "Power" Grant, Brooke Shields) (R)

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Drama: As a documentary filmmaker chronicles a group of white kids who act as if they're black, the urban gangster they idolize must deal with racism and a cop who wants to nail him.
Rich Bower (OLI "POWER" GRANT) is a powerful New York gangster who wants to leave the criminal world for the flashier one of becoming a hip-hop impresario. Yet, for all of Rich's criminal-based power, he discovers that as a "legit" black man he'll have to play in a white man's world. He and his right-hand man, Cigar (RAEKWON), learn this the hard way when a record producer rejects them based on their appearance and the producer's belief that crime follows the rap/hip-hop scene they're pursuing.

Sam Donager (BROOKE SHIELDS) is an aspiring documentary filmmaker who wishes to investigate and record the phenomenon of white kids who act like they're black and adopt a certain stereotypical black lifestyle. As such, she and her bisexual husband, Terry (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.), beginning following a group of students, including Charlie (BIJOU PHILLIPS), Wren (ELIJAH WOOD), Raven (GABY HOFFMANN) and Will (WILLIAM LEE SCOTT), who's tight with Rich and just so happens to be the son of District Attorney Bill King (JOE PANTOLIANO).

While Rich's lifestyle proves alluring to both Sam and the students she follows, the gangster's parties and get-togethers draw all sorts of people, from boxer Mike Tyson (MIKE TYSON) to up and coming basketball star, Dean (ALLAN HOUSTON), and his girlfriend, Greta (CLAUDIA SCHIFFER), who's big into social anthropology.

Things seem fine until NYPD detective Mark Clear (BEN STILLER) attempts to trap and then blackmail Dean in an effort to get his buddy Rich. Soon, Clear's actions set into motion a series of unavoidable repercussions that will affect the lives of most everyone involved in this group.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Ask any kid the riddle, "What's black and white and red (read) all over?" and they'll automatically shout out the correct answer, which of course, is a newspaper. Ask them, "What's Black and White and awful all over?" and they'll probably have a harder time answering that one. Most film critics and the average moviegoer, on the other hand, will immediately answer that it's director James Toback's latest film, "Black and White," a spectacularly bad piece of filmmaking when viewed in most any context.

First and foremost is the film's all too apparent stance of trying to be one of those movies with a message. Like any such exposť in most any newspaper, it tries to instill an important theorem about race relations in our society while also examining the behavior of today's generation of young people.

While neither of those is hardly original, they're certainly not a bad point from which to start a film, especially one that definitely has a gritty and edgy feel like this one does from the get-go. Unfortunately, the message - as scripted by the film's director, James Toback ("Two Girls and a Guy," "The Pick-Up Artist") - quickly and sloppily gets lost, forgotten or jettisoned in favor of a lackluster plot filled with a series of disjointed scenes, stilted dialogue and enough wooden acting to draw the attention of hungry, but unwary termites.

Even such voracious pests, however, would spit out this trash, especially upon the realization that some of the film's best scenes and acting come from none other than pugilist turned actor, Mike Tyson. Yes, the boxer known for chomping down on an opponent's ear gets the film's best line and most of its better scenes (although he sticks around too long and thus ruins the novelty effect of appearing as himself).

Despite his apparent biting reflex, however, he surprisingly doesn't even come close to winning the scenery chewing contest. That award, if you will, easily goes to Oli Grant, a.k.a. "Power," the rap entrepreneur/aspiring actor who made his less than glorious debut in 1998's "Belly." While I'll be the first to admit a clear absence of thespian skills in this body, at least I don't flaunt it on the silver screen.

It's abundantly obvious that he didn't spend his "off season" between his freshman and sophomore outings going to acting school. Then again, he's not alone in the stiff acting category as fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Corey "Raekwon" Woods and model turned actress Claudia Schiffer ("Friends and Lovers") compete for the viewer's attention in guessing what sort of tree they most closely resemble in their performances here.

Even more seasoned performers, such as Ben Stiller ("Keeping the Faith," "There's Something About Mary"), Joe Pantoliano ("Bound," "Risky Business"), Elijah Woods ("Deep Impact," "The Ice Storm") and even Brooke Shields ("Endless Love," TV's "Suddenly Susan") can't do much with their underdeveloped and underwritten roles.

The only halfway intriguing performances and characters come from recording artist Bijou Phillips as the main teen entranced by black culture, and Robert Downey Jr. ("Wonder Boys," "Two Girls and a Guy") as a bisexual man hiding in a heterosexual marriage.

Despite their performances generating some partial interest in their characters (although Downey's stint of playing oddball ones is becoming somewhat blasť through repetition), they, much like the audience, are left high and dry by Toback's script. In fact, after "Two Girls and a Guy" and now this film, it's become even harder to believe he was once nominated for an Oscar (for his script for the Warren Beatty picture, "Bugsy").

While message-heavy films can be good and such plots often generate highly charged, dramatic conflict (even in "preachy" films such as those occasionally delivered by the likes of Spike Lee), Toback and company quickly abandon any attempts at delivering something deep and/or insightful about race relations or white youths emulating black culture.

Instead, they switch gears and turn the film into a urban gangster/bad cop flick that's neither novel nor particularly interesting, and one that includes the most thematically inane scene I've seen in some time. Specifically, that's when the head oak tree, sorry, gangster goes to Mike Tyson (again, playing himself) for advice about the prospects of having someone killed. While Tyson earlier tells/warns Downey's bisexual character that he's on parole (meaning "stay away or I'm going to get into trouble after pummeling you" in the movie's funniest moment), here he acts like the Yoda of the urban gangster world and delivers his "learned" wisdom on the matter.

Had the scene unfolded under the proper conditions - with potent dialogue and strong, and more importantly, believable performances - it could have been a powerful moment in the film. Unfortunately, it comes off as one of the more ridiculous things you'll probably see all year on the big screen. Then again, and notwithstanding a few passable moments here and there, many might consider the entire film that way.

While one definition of "black and white" is an adjective regarding two mutually exclusive sets of ideas or values, there's only one definition for this film, and it's that it's "bad." When any given picture's best moments and some of its best acting come courtesy of a real-life boxer and former felon, that should be a clear sign of troubles, and this film has more than its share. Despite starting with a moderately intriguing premise, this one turns into nothing more than a mess of bad filmmaking. As such, "Black and White" earns a rating of just 2 out of 10.

Reviewed March 20, 2000 / Posted April 5, 2000

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