Pretty fly for an old fat white guy?

Maverick James Toback says his new film unpicks America's obsession with hip-hop culture. Join the club, says Ekow Eshun
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The Independent Culture

There's a scene in James Toback's freewheeling, satirical new film Black and White that already seems certain to secure a place in the annals of cinema notoriety. Robert Downey Jr, playing the predatory gay husband of video maker Brooke Shields, spies Mike Tyson at a party high above the streets of Manhattan. The former champion is lost in brooding contemplation. Downey draws close, winds himself around the boxer and whispers in his ear, "I dream about you." Tyson looks up. "I'm just chilling here by the window, let me be, please." His voice is soft but his eyes flash a warning. Downey, oblivious, presses on. He points to Brooke Shields. "That's my wife over there. Every time we make love, she thinks about you." The end of this scene, when it comes is short, brutish, and entirely predictable. Tyson cuffs the actor with a lightning flash of rage that sends Downey spinning to the floor. The outcome is no less startling, or visceral, for its inevitability. All the more so because at least one of the pr

There's a scene in James Toback's freewheeling, satirical new film Black and White that already seems certain to secure a place in the annals of cinema notoriety. Robert Downey Jr, playing the predatory gay husband of video maker Brooke Shields, spies Mike Tyson at a party high above the streets of Manhattan. The former champion is lost in brooding contemplation. Downey draws close, winds himself around the boxer and whispers in his ear, "I dream about you." Tyson looks up. "I'm just chilling here by the window, let me be, please." His voice is soft but his eyes flash a warning. Downey, oblivious, presses on. He points to Brooke Shields. "That's my wife over there. Every time we make love, she thinks about you." The end of this scene, when it comes is short, brutish, and entirely predictable. Tyson cuffs the actor with a lightning flash of rage that sends Downey spinning to the floor. The outcome is no less startling, or visceral, for its inevitability. All the more so because at least one of the protagonists wasn't acting. Like much of Black and White, the encounter was wholly improvised. Even so, it still bears the imprint of Toback, a director who has thrived on mischief for 20 years, shooting calculatedly provocative films that often deal with addiction, obsession, deceit and sexual compulsion.

Black and White is about wealth, class, miscegenation and hip-hop. It explores the mutual attraction between rich white kids and young blacks steeped in the codes of hip-hop in modern New York, which Toback clearly believes is a powerful indicator of social change across America. "Hip-hop has crossed over from being a fad or a phenomenon to being a culturally significant reality," argues the director. Still, it's hard not to feel that Toback has come late to a party that's been in full swing for some years now. After all, since the mid-1980s the bulk of hardcore hip-hop sales have gone to white, not black fans. And film makers as diverse as Larry Clark with Kids and Warren Beatty with Bulworth have already offered their take on white fascination with black culture. Toback, though, tries to make up for lost time with a sharply observed, if uneven, film that features established actors like Downey Jr, Shields and Ben Stiller, alongside members of rap group the Wu-Tang Clan, model Claudia Schiffer and, of course, Tyson, who is an imposing presence at the film's moral centre. To Toback's glee the movie, which opens with a lasciviously filmed inter-racial ménage à trois, has sparked controversy in America, sending some, apparently easily-shocked critics reeling. Entertainment Weekly nervously described it as like "something you've probably never seen before."

Clearly, Toback loves to sow discomfort. "I have never played in any area of my life - financial, cinematic, emotional - by any rules that conventional wisdom has determined is productive," he says with undisguised pride. "Even the way I make movies, to paraphrase Henry Miller, is a gob of spit in the face of received wisdom. Black and White violates every principle of coherent film-making. It had no real script going in, it used non-actors almost exclusively, it didn't have a pre-ordained course of action, there was no guarantee the movie would cut together."

Toback, 53, is balding, bearded, with an Epicurean's stomach and a satyr's mind. Since his first film, Fingers in 1978, his career has been championed by influential critics like Pauline Kael and, in the 1970s, by film-makers of the stature of Truffaut and Fassbinder. Nevertheless, it's unlikely that there's a bigger fan of Toback than the director himself. While his ego is held in balance by self-deprecating good humour, it's rare to meet anyone, even in the narcissistic world of movie-making, quite so fascinated by their own appetites and weaknesses. But then Toback has more than an average number of those to concern himself with. The grandson of a retailing magnate, he inherited and gambled away a personal fortune close to a $1m by the age of 21. While a student at Harvard, he "sought out extreme experiences" that culminated in his taking the largest ever-recorded dose of LSD, with a resultant trip that lasted for eight days. He also got to know, but roundly loathe Al Gore, befriending instead Gore's room-mate Tommy Lee Jones. On graduating, he updated Dostoyevsky's The Gambler into a screenplay for Karel ( The French Lieutenant's Woman) Reisz. Eager to direct his own scripts in a looser, more spontaneous way than Reisz, he made Fingers, another study of obsession which starred Harvey Keitel as an aspirant concert pianist fascinated by the violence he sees when out collecting debt for his bookmaker father. The film bombed commercially but remains the most critically respected of his half-dozen- or-so productions. Yet with Black and White released just a year after the well-received Two Girls and a Guy, Toback is now enjoying something of a career renaissance.

However, that's not to say Black and White is fault free. Far from it. Toback may be willing to let his cast dictate the course of the film's action, but that doesn't mean that he ceases to be an outsider in the world of hip-hop. Although it's unstated, the movie is about Toback's own fascination with black culture as much as that of the Manhattan rich kids he seeks to portray. This has some uncomfortable consequences. Chiefly that, while the white kids are shown dropping in and out of different identities as they move from ghetto to mansion and back again, the black rappers in the film are fixed in a state of permanent cool, as though there is no more to them than their clothes and their slang. Toback, looking from the outside, seems unable to imagine them with an inner life. And yet some of the movie's best scenes occur when the members of the Wu-Tang Clan begin rapping spontaneously before the camera. In flashes, other stories and concerns, quite distinct from the director's preoccupations, become briefly visible. Toback, whose love of chaos I suspect, is similar to that of a toddler appalled to find the world doesn't revolve around him, allows the camera to linger on them. Acknowledging for once, perhaps, that not all his work can just be about him.

'Black and White' (18) is released on 17 November

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