Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute, Rated PG-13
Starring: Kevin Costner, Gillian Jacobs, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell,
Jennifer Ehle, Anthony Mackie, Andre Holland
Written and Directed by Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, Man About Town,
The Upside of Anger, The Sex Monster, Blankman, Indian Summer)
The beginning scenes of Black or White(opening today) are tragic. Elliot (Kevin Costner) is alone outside of a hospital emergency room when he receives word that his wife has just been killed, suddenly and horribly, in a car accident. His best friend and lawyer buddy (played straight by the funny stand-up comedian, Bill Burr) is there to console him, but imagine his pain.
Oddly enough, the weight of that event doesn't play as heavy as it should in Black or White, and that would be a theme that would carry through most of this uneven story. There are several big topics that are addressed and pondered over - race, parenting, drug use, alcohol abuse, death, loss - but even in the face of this, there is a strange lightness to the overall tone. Is it the sax-heavy, off-putting score? The under-developed relationships between several of the main characters? Something else entirely?
As it turns out, Elliot has already had his fair share of tragedy in his life. The death of his wife was preceded by the death of his daughter, who died during childbirth following a shamed pregnancy that had been hidden from him. Although he gained a granddaughter in the mixed-race Eloise (Jillian Estell), the loss of his daughter was the beginning of a serious alcohol problem for Elliot. His recent loss only sends him further and deeper into the bottle as he searches for hope among the wreckage.
He finds himself with nothing in this world except for Eloise, whom he has every intention of raising properly. But knowing of Elliot's drinking problems, Eloise's "other" grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), shows up and has serious doubts that Elliot is properly equipped to raise the child. She, on the other hand, has a cackle of offspring, nieces, nephews and grandchildren, and she believes that Eloise would be better off with her and her kin. Elliot of course refuses giving her up and the battle for custody begins.
Rowena's lawyer brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) is brought on to represent her in the courtroom, and not pulling any punches, he pushes that they play the race card in order to sway the judge. Elliot does not appear to be racist in the least (and to hammer the point home, they show that Elliot employs an African-American tutor for young Eloise and also has an African-American secretary in his employ). The family even brings Eloise's loser father back into the picture (Andre Holland).
The film does a good job in bringing up not-easy-to-answer scenarios and the dilemma is deliberately made to be about race. Elliot is not shown to be anything but a depressed alcoholic and loving grandfather, but he ends up using the n-word in a fit of rage towards Eloise's dad. On the other hand, you have a stereotypical black family, who all seem to live communally under one roof, and with Eloise's dad, you have your run-of-the-mill crack addicted, uneducated dead-beat dad.
While Kevin Costner turns in a tremendous performance, there are several flaws with the film itself beyond its somewhat controversial premise. The child, for one, seems totally oblivious and unaffected by the death of her grandma. It would have been smart to show some sort of relationship between Eloise and her Grandma Rowena, but there is no such closeness shown. The result comes across not as an examination of racial relations, but as manipulation on the part of the filmmaker, writer/director Mike Binder. His film clearly has sympathy for and sides with Costner's character, and doesn't quite present both sides of the conflict equally.
Black or White wants to tackle some tough questions, and some credit should be given for raising them at all. But although the film was inspired by true events, the characters in the movie exist more as ideas and concepts, rather than real people. Racism has been around forever, but on-screen problems can be solved in a few hours. The dead-beat dad character is the most troublesome of all, a thorn in the side of Elliot who is a bad dude until he decides to be a good dude, sometimes all in the span of a minute or two. Grandma Rowena seems at first interested in the well-being of the child, but soon after seems to be more concerned with "winning." Many of these characters just don't seem to be living in reality, nor do they make consistent decisions based on what we know of them.
As a character in the film describes, racism should not be judged based on your first thought in a situation, but on your second, third and fourth thoughts. In asking us to look at things as black or white, Black or Whiteunderestimates our ability to separate something even more prevalent: What is truth and what is not. Something just rings false about the world that this film takes place in, rendering ineffective any deeper meaning that might have accompanied it.
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