BLACK OR WHITE
2015, PG-13, 121 mins.
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.
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
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.
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