It’s a grim, gray afternoon on the campus of Harvard University, but but the air is far chillier inside a lecture room at the school’s visual arts center, where director James Toback is enduring a withering onslaught of verbal abuse from a roomful of irate students. The restless crowd has just screened Toback’s latest movie, Black and White, and they seem ready to beat him black and blue. First question: ”Can you comment on the pervasive and at times sickening homophobia in the movie?” For the next two hours the film is accused of everything from a lack of redeeming characters to reinforcing racial stereotypes to having an unrealistic death scene. ”That was like a punch,” Wu-Tang Clan’s Oli ”Power” Grant — who costars in the movie and sat next to Toback during the Harvardian harangue — says after the Q&A ends. ”They was throwing jabs in there.”
Black and White itself is more like a slap — a sharp, stinging smack that feels like it’ll probably leave a mark. ”A lot of people are going to be shocked by some of it,” predicts Claudia Schiffer, who plays a manipulative grad student in the movie. ”It raises a lot of questions.” Featuring an odd collection of actors — including Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Mike Tyson, Bijou Phillips, William Lee Scott, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan — Black and White is something you’ve probably never seen: Largely improvised (like Toback’s critically hailed 1998 Two Girls and a Guy), the film takes a verite look at interracial sex and the white teenagers who embrace hip-hop culture’s music, baggy jeans, and frequent use of the word nigga. Early reactions to the film have been mixed, though Toback’s friend Warren Beatty, whose 1998 film Bulworth explored race and politics in a similarly risky manner, is happy to provide a thumbs-up. ”This picture puts [class and race] on the table, and at the same time is entertaining enough to cause you to stay at the table,” says Beatty, whose 1991 Bugsy scored a screenwriting Oscar nomination for Toback. ”Jimmy is much too intelligent to be reductive about solutions.”
And yet Toback does seem to be making a point. The plot of Black and White — shot for $4 million — follows loosely connected characters who share a desperation to escape themselves. Phillips, 20, plays a rich Manhattan high schooler who talks and acts like a product of the projects. Power plays a thoughtful thug struggling to remake himself as a music entrepreneur. Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon appears as an aspiring rap star. Stiller’s a criminal-turned-corrupt cop. Downey’s a bisexual in a sham marriage with a dreadlocked documentarian (Shields). Trace the film’s relationships and talk to Toback, who also wrote it, and you realize he’s celebrating the power of hip-hop and interracial sex to conquer bigotry.
”To me that’s the central thing going on in America today,” says Toback. ”Obviously it’s changing music, it’s changing language, it’s changing clothes, and I think it is completely changing the whole social order in a way that makes even passive bigotry totally unacceptable to anyone who isn’t a kind of a professed Neanderthal. It’s changed the sexual culture completely, which is the key to race, because as soon as you have interracial sex to a degree where it isn’t even an issue and you start with mass interracial sex, then the races become indistinguishable.”