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James Toback's Hollywood hip-hop

By Josh Kun

APRIL 24, 2000:  I never thought I'd see the day when Charlie Rose was correcting Brooke Shields about hip-hop. I don't remember the exact play-by-play -- it's hard to find a pen and paper when your mouth is on the floor -- but she said something like, "Hip-hop is getting pretty popular." And he said something like, "Brooke, I think it's more pervasive than that" (it was way worse, but I'll let them slide; they were so earnest).

We have James Toback to blame for this. Shields and Toback were both guests at Rose's PBS oak table to plug Toback's brainless new Black and White. You've heard about it by now, I'm sure, the film that alleges to be a searingly honest look at race in America by exploring the attraction of white kids to hip-hop blackness (as represented by the Wu-Tang Clan's Power and Raekwon). In Toback's typically delicate and humble words: "The movie could be a firecracker in the asshole of America."

There will be no firecracker anywhere with this thing, especially when it makes Charlie Rose into a hip-hop authority. Black and White is big-time business as usual: the story of white people fetishizing black people as illicit objects of taboo desire, a story told and publicized by white people. It's one of this country's oldest pastimes, and just updating it every time a new batch of white kids get off on a new batch of black music doesn't change much of anything unless you learn to talk about it differently.

And on Rose's show, Shields and Toback sounded like every other white explorer proud of what he or she has uncovered, repeatedly referring to "the black community" and "the hip-hop culture" as immobile and obedient case studies parked just outside their tents in the Bronx. Their squareness belied Black and White's pretense of urban hipness and made it uncomfortably clear that this film comes from all sorts of outsides -- from outside hip-hop, from outside white niggadom.

The biggest mistake Black and White makes is that it takes the easy route by focusing on rich Upper East Side white kids who slum it for shits, giggles, three-ways, and rebellion against their stuffy quail-eating parents (i.e., how better to piss daddy off than to do a rapper and wear a gold cap on your tooth?). No white filmmaker seems to want to touch the harder film, the one about lower- and working-class white kids from the Wu-Tang's own turf of Staten Island, kids whose investment in blackness comes not from the romantic fantasy of downward mobility but from shared class terrain in the country's economic shakedown.

As just about every review of Black and White has pointed out, Toback's great ancestor in all this is Norman Mailer, who talked about whites wanting to be black back in 1957 when he turned the beatnik and the hipster into the "white negro," a new subterranean cabal of bebopping "urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts." But the real problem is not that Black and White simply recasts the white negro as the white nigga but that Toback falls into the same trap Mailer did: he wants to be a white nigga too. Mailer started off documenting bebop-loving hipsters, but by the article's end, their obsessions with black male sexuality -- their "orgasm," their "kicks," their "lust, languor growl, cramp, pinch, scream" -- had become his.

Mailer had called jazz "the music of orgasm," and he argued that what attracted white hipsters to black men with horns in their mouths was their savage sexuality, their alleged infantile lack of control over their sexual impulses. On Rose, Toback couldn't stop talking about how sexual he thinks hip-hop is, how much it appeals to pubescent white kids looking for sexual release.

He all but had an orgasm of his own when he described the film's opening scene, where Wu-Tanger Power gets served by two white girls in the middle of Central Park. And for the rest of the film, it's these girls -- along with Shields and Claudia Schiffer (who leaves a pants-stuffing Ben Stiller for an NBA hopeful) -- who become Toback's conduits, the pixyish masks for his own fetishization of the black male bodies that they so comically fiend after.

As was the case with Mailer and his white negroes, Black and White can't critique the effects of white niggadom -- or even take them seriously -- because it's too busy getting off on them. Which leaves it as yet another film -- think Boiler Room, think Bulworth -- that uses the "impact of hip-hop on American culture" line to avoid dealing with what black people think about all this. Hence no Power or Raekwon on Charlie Rose. In the liberal Hollywood world of safe racial debate that Black and White knows it's a part of, what the Wu-Tang have to say about race in America is simply not important.


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