Black or White
2015, PG-13, 121 min. Directed by Mike Binder. Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, André Holland, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Bill Burr, Paula Newsome, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle.
REVIEWED By William Goss, Fri., Jan. 30, 2015
2014 was a banner year for race-minded movies from African-American filmmakers. Selma examined the political compromises necessary to make strides toward landmark social change, Dear White People savaged the current landscape of would-be political correctness on both sides of the matter, and Beyond the Lights cast a harsh spotlight on the unhealthy expectations that the entertainment industry places on young black women to succeed.
Then there’s Black or White, which futilely snuck into awards contention late last year. The reunion of writer/director Mike Binder and star/producer Kevin Costner for the first time since 2005’s The Upside of Anger may have once held promise, but following a year of pronounced racial turmoil in the public sphere and a handful of films already willing to meet the zeitgeist halfway, their liberal guilt trip about how racism makes white people uncomfortable too feels like lip service to issues deserving of less melodramatic treatment.
In a gender-swapped retread of the 1995 custody drama, Losing Isaiah, Costner plays Elliot, a big-city lawyer and recent widower entrusted to continue raising his precocious biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Estell). There’s no question that Elliot can provide for Eloise, as he and his late wife always had since their daughter passed away during childbirth, but his increasingly inebriated state has Eloise’s remaining grandmother, Rowena (Spencer), wondering if she wouldn’t be a better guardian for the young girl. Unable to reach an acceptable middle ground with Elliot, Rowena enlists the help of her attorney brother, Jeremiah (Mackie), and Eloise’s supposedly reformed drug-addict father, Reggie (Holland), to sue for full custody.
What follows is a parade of broadly played culture clashes and a wearisome sense of righteousness coming from both sides of the case. Elliot hires Eloise’s tutor (Koaho) to drive him around like he’s some sort of shit-faced Miss Daisy and begrudgingly allows Rowena’s extended clan to use his pristine pool while his wife (Ehle) is relegated to silent, saintly flashbacks. Meanwhile, Jeremiah struggles to uncover the racist side of this rich white man as Reggie falls off the wagon, providing a queasy moral equivalence between his addiction and Elliot’s.
However, even after Rowena and Jeremiah castigate Reggie for being a deadbeat dad (“You’re a cliche,” Jeremiah points out), Binder fails to make him a character complex enough to offset that accusation. The writer/director repeatedly mistakes ambivalence for nuance, neglecting the young girl in the middle of the fracas to focus on the overly simplified flaws on either side. Costner is as stubborn as Spencer is sassy, only really bringing it home in a big courtroom speech when Elliot is confronted with his very public use of the N-word.
The film ultimately culminates in a laughable backyard confrontation meant to deflect from the pursuit of hard-earned legal resolution. Willing to acknowledge a thorny middle ground without ever finding a satisfying path through it, Black or White is a film all about matters of race that hardly matters at all.