A film review by Craig J. Koban March 21, 2015


2015, PG-13, 121 mins.


Kevin Costner as Elliot  /  Jillian Estell as Eloise  /  Octavia Spencer as Rowena  /  Andre Holland as Reggie 

Written and directed by Mike Binder

Mike Binder’s BLACK OR WHITE is an honest and uncommonly challenging film about race relations.  

What could have emerged as a manipulative TV movie of the week about a child custody battle unexpectedly becomes a meticulously well acted and deeply perceptive portrait of what makes people who they are and what affects our perceptions of those we frequently deem as different from ourselves in society.  In many ways, BLACK OR WHITE feels a bit old fashioned on a cursory level, but it’s arguably a very topical and frequently brave film about racial distrust on both sides of the proverbial fences.  In a relative day and age when we all like to think that overt racism is a thing of the past, BLACK AND WHITE reminds us that it can often take more subtle forms that are sometimes imperceptible, even to those that perpetrate it. 

That, and BLACK AND WHITE once again highlights the recent career resurgence of star Kevin Costner (whom previously gave an Oscar worthy performance in Binder’s 2005 drama THE UPSIDE OF ANGER) and he shows here – as he has displayed in many recent films, like the terrific McFARLAND, USA – why he’s one of our more thanklessly understated and undervalued actors.  In BLACK OR WHITE Costner plays his most challenging role and does so with his quintessential low-key and nuanced style.  He portrays a man of limitless wealth and privilege that’s waging a legal battle to retain soul custody of his black granddaughter (the biracial child of his white daughter and her black husband), but he’s also a figure with skeletons in his closet.  He’s a chronic alcoholic and even maintains traces of racism that he’s essentially unaware that he harbors (he thinks that helping raise a black granddaughter makes him a man that doesn’t see color).  He's equal parts caring, pathetic, sympathetic, and vindictive; it’s a testament to Costner’s delicately layered performance that he creates a figure of such rich and problematic dimension. 



Costner plays Elliot Anderson, an affluent lawyer that – as the film opens – has just discovered that his loving wife has died after a horrendous car crash.  Grief stricken, Elliot turns to two things that manage to ease his pain: alcohol and raising his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell).  Eloise has lived with and has been raised by Elliot and his now-deceased wife almost since childbirth, seeing as Elliott’s daughter died bringing her into the world and the father Reggie (Andre Holland) has been an absentee dad that’s become so entrenched in his own drug addiction that Elliot refuses to let him near his granddaughter.  Despite the fact that Elliot is clearly no saint (he drinks without reason throughout much of the day), he nonetheless loves Eloise and caters to her every whim.  As a result, Elliot believes himself to be race blind. 

But…what of Eloise's other family member from her father’s side?  Her grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) is a self-made businesswoman that runs six businesses, owns three homes, and is a good provider for her kin.  For years, though, Rowena has clamored for more time with Eloise, perhaps so that she can embrace and learn more about her African heritage…but also perhaps to get her away from her alcoholic grandfather, whom Rowena sees as a negative influence.  One day, and without relative warning, Rowena decides to fight Elliot for soul custody of Eloise, which Elliot predictably declines and decides to fight her in court.  To make matters direr, Reggie re-emerges in Eloise’s life as a self-admitted “cleaned-up” junkie, but Elliot still sees him a reckless drugged-up loser that he believes was a factor in his own daughter’s death.  All parties eventually come to a head and deal with all of their mutual distrust with one another in the courtroom. 

The issues at the forefront of BLACK OR WHITE are considerably more complex and compellingly handled than I was expecting.  Binder gives remarkably balanced portraits of all parties – white and black – in terms of how both sides use opaque levels of stereotyping in forming snap judgment opinions of the other.  Elliot, again, sees himself as color blind for being a honorable man for raising Eloise, which is true to a degree.  Yet, at the same time, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge anything positive about entrenching his granddaughter deep within her grandmother’s African American heritage.  He also can’t bring himself to see Reggie as a potentially reformed man on any level.  In his mind, Reggie has been – and always will be – a street thug.  Yet, are his opinions of Reggie valid because he is still a drug addict or are they invalid because he perceives the man via a simplistically easy viewfinder that perpetuates black stereotypes? 

Elliot is not the only flawed person in BLACK OR WHITE.  Rowena is a woman that sees Elliot in a haze of stereotypes as well; in her mind, he’s a man of white privilege that’s had everything relatively handed to him on a silver platter all of his life.  That, and Rowena believes that Elliot is a chronic drunk that's unable to mend his self-damaging ways.  Ironically enough, both men that want to figure heavily in Eloise’s life have chemical dependency issues and indeed are arguably ill suited to raise anyone in their current conditions.  Binder’s film has been criticized for being one-sided on the racial divide, which is unfair.  If anything, BLACK OR WHITE paints both its black and white characters in equally conflicted strokes.  This is a film that contains multiple characters that are deeply imperfect human beings and cause pain to one another via their actions.  The other commonality is that they all think they are more righteous than the other. 

I rarely felt like BLACK OR WHITE was methodically preaching at me.  Binder asks a lot of tough questions about race without engaging in simplistic and easy answers.  The film places an implicit level of trust in viewers, far more than many other recent family melodramas.  Binder has his characters engage in many scenes of unsettling – and sometimes shocking – dialogue exchanges that simultaneously contain hurtful and truthful words.  There’s a brilliantly rendered scene involving Costner – on the witness stand in court – being challenged about his bigoted nature, to which he engages in a brutally frank monologue about how everyone sees skin color and often have unhealthy first thoughts about it.  In his mind, what matters are the good-natured second and third thoughts that come afterwards. 

Costner is at the very peak of his thespian powers in moments like this, which could have erupted – in a lesser actor’s hands – into camera mugging hysterics.  Yet, Costner has an unimpeachable knack for inhabiting warts-and-all characters like Elliot and showing them at their best and worst with the type of minimalist performance economy that only he can muster.  The other performances are stellar as well, like Spencer’s Rowena, who is the trickiest character to effectively pull off in the film, seeing as the actress has to show her as a proud and independent career woman with a progressive minded head and heart that, like Elliot, faces challenges about her perceptions of other races.  Andre Holland might have the toughest challenge of all in playing Reggie as a man that doesn't overtly tip audiences towards his true allegiances and motives. 

Not all of BLACK OR WHITE rings true.  The final 15 minutes or so are perhaps packed with a bit too much artificial sentimentality for its own good, not to mention that its all-too-convenient epilogue kind feels dramatically false.  Everything that builds towards the final act in BLACK OR WHITE, though, is surprisingly handled and doesn’t obtrusively go through obligatory story motions.  There’s considerably more going on underneath the surface of this family/courtroom drama than what initially appears.  For the most part, BLACK OR WHITE is tenacious enough to tackle hard hitting truths about systemic racism that still exists – albeit in less palpable forms – in America.  In the end, Binder’s film is essentially saying that everyone – black or white – is culpable of mistreating people through a nasty haze of ignorance. 

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