There's an off-the-cuff, improvisatory spontaneity to James Toback's "Black and White" that reflects its subject -- hip-hop culture's interface with mainstream society -- and gives the otherwise flawed film a certain electric edginess. Toback and cinematographer David Ferrara color their movie with a pseudo-documentary vibe, whether they're looking in on a bisexual, biracial manage a trois in New York's Central Park, a formal family dinner on the Upper East Side or a gathering of friends in front of a mural-covered wall in Staten Island's Park Hill Projects.
Some of the scenes come off as frighteningly real, especially a violent confrontation between ex-con fighter Mike Tyson (playing himself) and Terry (Robert Downey, Jr., before his latest incarceration), a dandy who's married to Sam (Brooke Shields), a dreadlocked white documentarian. The intensity of that sequence is enhanced by the use of actual video footage that Shields shot as the outburst transpired. Tyson speaks softly, but wields a mean chokehold. Art blurs into life; in this case, who can sort out the difference?
The trouble is, I kept wanting to shuck writer-director Toback's fictional conceits and proceed instead with a real documentary on the theme. Why is it that middle-class white kids like Charlie (Bijou Phillips) and her friends develop deep attachments to the music, clothes, speech and mannerisms of rappers like Rich (Power of the Wu-Tang Clan)? High-school teacher Casey (Jared Leto) poses this question to a classroom full of the world's most communicative teenagers.
"I wanna be black," Charlie explains. Is it just a way to connect with friends via a special language that parents won't understand? Is it simple teen-age rebellion? Or is it something deeper? Rich, talking to college basketball star Dean (Allan Houston of the New York Knicks), describes it as a Caucasian quest for African-Americans' "life force." Dean, in a response that hints at the underlying preachiness of the dialogue, replies: "White people are as different from each other as black people. You can't lump them all together."
In addition to assembling his version of the ultimate fictional study of hip-hop culture, Toback ("Two Girls and a Guy," "The Pick-Up Artist"), seems to have simultaneously tried on a sort of Altmanesque approach. A huge ensemble cast of actors and non-professionals alike portrays a diverse group of characters whose personal connections transcend barriers of race, geography and economics. Charlie's friend Marty (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is the younger brother of Will (William Lee Scott), a wannabe homeboy who's cautiously admitted into Rich's inner circle. Rich's longtime pal Dean is living with Greta (Claudia Schiffer), a graduate student who has a history with Mark (Ben Stiller), an ex-gambler who's bent on cutting a deal with District Attorney Bill King (Joe Pantoliano). Oh, and King just happens to be the father of both Marty and Will.
The plot of "Black and White," such as it is, is driven by a murder whose inevitability makes it no less shocking. The aftermath of the crime imparts a taste of social Darwinism: The strong survive, the weak don't, the rich prosper, the powerful use their positions to their own advantage and the races mostly keep to themselves. Welcome to the evolution of black-white relations.