Black or White (2014)

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Directed by Mike Binder
Written by Mike Binder

Rated PG-13

Kevin Costner as Elliott Anderson
Octavia Spencer as Rowena Jeffers
Jillian Estell as Eloise Anderson
Bill Burr as Rick Reynolds
Andre Holland as Reggie Davis
Jennifer Ehle as Carol
Anthony Mackie as Jeremiah Jeffers
Paula Newsome as Judge Cummins
Gillian Jacobs as Fay

Mike Binder’s Black or White has many ingredients to secure a great movie. Two Academy Award-winning stars, Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, headline the film. Both stars are relevant with recent successes: Costner scored with Hatfields & McCoys, earning an Emmy and brining record ratings to The History Channel in 2012. Spencer became a star thanks to her scene-stealing, Oscar-winning role in 2011’s The Help. She earned acclaim for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, and she had a supporting role in one of last year’s most talked-about films, Snowpiercer. Binder worked with Costner previously, on 2005’s brilliant The Upside of Anger, which elicited one of Costner’s best performances. Finally, Black or White has a cute little girl and the always-topical subject of racial intolerance, even in a post-Obama America (and by “post,” I mean he has already been elected). Yet, given all of these advantages, Black or White is only a solid, if not great, film.

Costner is never less than believable as Elliott Anderson, a fiftysomething attorney, whose wife tragically and unexpectedly dies at the beginning of the film. Elliott is the grandfather of seven-year-old Eloise (Jillian Estell), and he and his late wife have been raising Eloise since she was born. The Andersons’ 17-year-old daughter died in childbirth, and ne’er-do-well African-American boyfriend Reggie (Andre Holland) is a crack addict. Eloise’s paternal grandmother is Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer). Rowena’s neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles isn’t far, geographically, from Costner’s upscale surroundings. Rowena is a loving part of Eloise’s life.

Trouble is, now that Mrs. Anderson is deceased, Rowena is concerned about Eloise’s future. Despite her pleas to have Elliott embrace her and “gimme some love,” she’s ambivalent (okay, downright hesitant) about his ability to maintain sole custody. Rowena may live in South Central, but her neighborhood seems marginally safe (if you disregard neighbors smoking crack on their front porch) – still, Rowena is the successful and hard working matriarch of a loving family. But Rowena feels Eloise cannot grow up well adjusted and in-touch with her culture if The White Man raises her.

So, let’s examine Rowena’s argument. Costner’s Elliott is a Man of a Certain Age, and his wife’s recent death a triggered a blatant abuse of alcohol. The man has a drinking problem, a bad one. To its credit, the film wisely does not provide easy answers or the obligatory AA salvation stint to “treat” the problem. Moving along – there are also no other children in Elliott’s home, and culturally, Eloise’s mixed-race status will probably lean more white than black given the current circumstances (calling Rev. Al!).

In Elliott’s corner: his home is the only home Eloise has ever known, and she clearly loves her Papa (indeed, some of the film’s best and most tender scenes are the ones with Costner and Estell). Elliott is clearly a good provider, and he has hired a whiz-kid tutor (Mpho Koaho) to help Eloise with her homework. Eloise is enrolled in a prestigious prep school, and despite Eliiott’s grief and drinking issues, she is well adjusted and obviously loved. Now in what world does a parent deserve to lose custody of their child because the tragic death of a spouse has triggered alcoholism?

This is where I found the script to be one-dimensional. Anyone who has known well or loved an alcoholic could probably attest that one event (no matter how traumatic) does not an alcoholic make, entirely. The predilection for alcohol was [most likely] already there. Meanwhile, Rowena’s character is the stereotypical mmmm-hmmm, no-nonsense Black Woman, ready to fight for her grandbaby, because Elliott’s caregiver is white. Rowena forgives her son, over and over, for being a crack addict. Where’s the compassion for Elliott? Fortunately, Spencer is such an excellent actress that she is able to portray Rowena as all the things I mentioned, but also as a woman who, while stubborn, can be reasonable. She doesn’t hate Elliott; she loves her granddaughter. I believed her character had the child’s best interests at heart. But I’m calling this out: if there was a racist protagonist in the film (if there can be such a thing), it’s Rowena.

Elliott’s major flaws are his drinking problem and his inability to grieve his losses in a healthy manner. In contrast, Rowena appears to see little more than color, and again (and worse) – she’s oblivious to her crack-addicted son’s shortcomings. Reggie is a junkie, and when Reggie and Elliott inevitably face off, the dreaded n-word comes out. Will this be mentioned in court? What do you think?

This confrontation is tense, non-violent, and realistic. Watch it and listen to the context, and you may be surprised at how non-offensive an ugly, offensive word can be … within said context. I’d be willing to be Eloise has been taught by the Andersons never to use this word, while Rowena’s brood uses it, you know, in fun, and with affection. Has anyone ever really bought this contradictory rationalization? Anyway, this scene works, but it feels a bit forced, as if it was inserted just to put Elliott on a level playing field with Rowena’s bigotry.

The plot moves along to a would-be charged custody battle. Rowena enlists in the legal aid of her educated brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie, a good actor in an underwritten role). As the case develops, both sides begin to deter from the matter at hand. Jeremiah seeks to portray Elliott as a racist and a man who refuses to let Eloise have much contact with her father because he is black. More writing problems here, as some big issues are glossed over in court. There are pink elephants in the room, if you will – and I was surprised these topics were not more pointedly addressed. The judge is African-American, and you jump to any conclusions, watch the impressive performance of Paula Newsome (from Binder’s Reign Over Me). She’s fantastic, and I’d like to see more of Newsome.

Finally, the performances are all uniformly solid. Costner and Spencer are just fine, and I enjoyed the thought-provoking premise that there are no real bad guys in this film. Even the seemingly unredeemable Reggie character has an opportunity to Do the Right Thing – thought it is offset by a jarring and melodramatic scene that is distracting. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Rowena’s family. They seem loving and devoted to each other. Perhaps more time with them could have made Rowena’s case seem more plausible. The alcoholism of Elliott’s character is a dutiful plot device, and it’s handled okay, if not great. I think it should have been addressed more.

Just like life itself, which Binder so wonderfully depicted in The Upside of Anger, there are rarely easy answers. Black or White will play well to family audiences, though it plays its charged topic very safe. When a film like Black or White suggest more potential than it delivers, it feels like a maddening gray area.

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