Most of the proliferating teen pix crowding the mini-malls don’t acknowledge the way hip-hop has become the sanctuary of upstart white kids looking for an alternative lifestyle to cross over into. The recent Boiler Room, about mostly white chop-shop brokers who come on like rap masters, touched on the subject, and Black and White, the new James Toback film, mainlines it. It’s a free-form, new-style movie, with music by American Cream Team, worked around a lot of old-style plot devices: It features delinquent kids bucking their staid, well-to-do parents; turf wars involving black gangs and the Mafia; two childhood friends who went their separate ways, one into crime, one into sports (and then crime); and many other roasted chestnuts. It also features a performance by Robert Downey Jr., as the gay husband of a documentary filmmaker played by Brooke Shields, that’s one of the funniest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. When Downey, coming on to Mike Tyson, playing himself, is bitch-slapped for his troubles, the screen is abuzz with a million incongruities.
Toback is no Johnny-come-lately to the racial-cultural wars. Back in 1971, he wrote a Maileresque, hero-worshippy book about Jim Brown, and he featured Brown in his directorial debut, Fingers, which was thick with the musk of black-white sex. The aliveness that Toback brings to Black and White owes at least as much to his continuing racial obsessions as it does to the cultural moment. Lucky for him right now, the two are joined.