BLACK AND WHITE -- **1/2 -- Oli Grant, Bijou Phillips, Brooke Shields, Ben Stiller, Allan Houston, William Lee Scott, Robert Downey Jr., Claudia Schiffer; rated R (profanity, racial epithets, sex, violence, vulgarity, nudity, drug use); Carmike Plaza 5400 and Ritz 15 Theaters; Loews Cineplex Crossroads Plaza, Holladay Center and South Towne Center Cinemas.

Subtlety is not "Black and White's" strong suit.Not that any film trying to start a serious discussion on two subjects as extremely divisive as race relations and hip-hop music could be subtle.

But even a little restraint and sensitivity on the part of writer/director James Toback would have made this too-ambitious-for-its-own-good drama a whole lot better.

As it is, it's not a bad movie, though it is crammed with too many characters and a series of distracting cameo appearances (by professional sports figures and musicians), both of which distract from the story at hand.

The film's central character is Rich Bower (Oli Grant, from the music group Wu-Tang Clan), a New York gangster attempting to go "legitimate" by becoming a hip-hop impresario.

But there are more than a few hurdles in his way. First, he has to deal with encroachment by white gangsters on his turf. Then, he discovers that his childhood friend, Dean (New York Knicks star Allan Houston), is being blackmailed by a New York detective (Ben Stiller) -- though the cop is actually using Dean to get to Rich.

If that isn't bad enough, Rich is also being pestered by a group of white, teenage hangers-on (Bijou Phillips and Elijah Wood), as well as a pair of filmmakers (Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr.) who want to interview him for a documentary on hip-hop culture.

That seems like a lot of material, but there are also subplots about a New York district attorney (Joe Pantoliano) and his two sons (William Lee Scott and Eddie Kaye Thomas), an affluent white family, and even boxer Mike Tyson.

To his credit, Toback ("Two Girls and a Guy") does try to concentrate on the meatier story lines, though you sort of wish he had just eliminated the less-important ones.

Again, the results are too cluttered. But though Toback practically bludgeons the audience with some of this, there are some well-chosen messages about racial differences and ethnic identity.

And given that some of the cast is made up of "non-professionals," the performances are solid, especially from musicians Grant and Phillips, and Stiller, whose character gradually becomes more important as the film progresses.

However, the real show-stopper here is Downey, who nearly steals the whole thing as Shields' flirtatious gay husband.

"Black and White" is rated R for considerable use of profane language and racial epithets, graphic, simulated sex, violence (including gunplay), crude sex talk, female nudity and simulated drug use (marijuana). Running time: 100 minutes.