Black or White

Hopefully, there’s no crotch-grabbing again this time… Hee-hee!!!! Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer star in Black or White.

Black or WhiteCast of Characters:
Elliot Anderson – Kevin Costner
Rowena Jeffers – Octavia Spencer
Eloise Anderson – Jillian Estell
Rick Reynolds – Bill Burr
Duvan Aragab – Mpho Koaho
Carol – Jennifer Ehle
Reggie Davis – Andre Holland
Fay – Gillian Jacobs
Jeremiah Jeffers – Anthony Mackie

Director – Mike Binder
Screenplay – Mike Binder
Producer – Kevin Costner, Todd Lewis & Mike Binder
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language,
thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight

Life’s given Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) his fair share of trials. His daughter died in childbirth, and ever since his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) died in a car crash, he’s been left to raise their bi-racial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) on his own.

His world’s turned upside down once again when Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), enters the picture and demands she be placed in the custody of her father Reggie (Andre Holland), a drug addict who Elliot blames for the negligence that led to his daughter’s death. With both sides not willing to go down without a fight, Elliot and Rowena become entrenched in a custody battle over their granddaughter.

Originally slated as a last-minute Oscar contender, Black or White, like many of the films that have been or are soon to be released this year, was pushed back to the end of January. Typically, that’s not a good sign for your film (last year’s The Monuments Men, for example), and the tacky trailer that looked like another offering from the Tyler Perry workshop didn’t do much, if anything, to stoke the anticipation – well, the lack thereof – I had for this film.

Yet I was surprisingly moved by this film. At least more than I expected to be and that’s thanks mostly to the strong cast. Based on his own family experiences, writer/director Mike Binder (who previously worked with Kevin Costner on The Upside of Anger) at times sugarcoats the message in broad strokes, but there are moments where he doesn’t shy away from the uneasiness of the touchy subject matter, which next to its promotional hashtag “Love has no color” raises the thought that neither does prejudice. Jeremiah’s blunt rant toward his drug addicted nephew, Rowena finally facing the truth about her son’s issues and Elliot’s confrontations with Reggie (save the contrived climactic one), as well as giving a brutally honest speech about race in court are powerful moments within the film that may make some viewers wince a little, but Binder infuses each delicate scene with a healthy dose of bitter truth that make a profound impact.

Of course, missteps are made along the way. Elliot’s late wife makes a few ghostly appearances, an overused dream sequence gimmick (2013’s Hours used a similar device) that only cheapens the film’s emotion with mawkish sentiment. The courtroom segments sometimes border on having as much realism as an episode of Judge Judy, and the final ten minutes, which follows one of Costner’s strongest scenes in the film, feels like a halfhearted cop-out by Binder to wedge in a feel-good ending.

Even with its flaws, though, Black or White is still a solid film and that’s because of what the cast brings to these characters, with Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer performing at the top of their game. Aside from a few moments of uncharacteristic stupidity (in particular, a bribe that no lawyer would ever in their right mind partake in), Binder keeps these characters grounded with enough realism instead of pitting one against the other as a cardboard hero/villain. No one can doubt the love Elliot and Rowena both have for their granddaughter, but just like any other human they are naturally flawed (she’s in denial over her son’s problems; he drinks to cope with his wife’s death) as circumstances that arise from their situation cause prejudices toward the other to come out of them. Costner will never go down in history as one of Hollywood’s most emotive performers, but he gives one of the most challenging performances of his career. Spencer owns every scene she is in, even when her courtroom scenes turn unnecessarily silly (more Binder’s fault than her, though).

Turning in an impressive supporting turn is Anthony Mackie as Spencer’s brother, a successful attorney who makes the decision to press the race card against Elliot hard ’cause he feels that’s the gutter tactic they have to make in order to win the case. Andre Holland provides enough heartbreak to a pathetic deadbeat that could’ve become another absentee dad cliche (something that’s actually pointed out by Mackie in a terrific scene).

Newcomer Jillian Estell doesn’t get as much to work with as she should’ve gotten. It’s clear her character is more a device for Costner and Spencer to play off of, and a little more insight into how the custody battle affects her would’ve been nice. That said, Estell does share a few quietly heartfelt moments with Costner that resonate well.

Black or White certainly ain’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but amidst the on the nose musical cues, gimmicky devices and a sloppy final ten minutes, writer/director Mike Binder handles a touchy subject solidly, providing his film with enough thought-provoking themes to counteract the melodrama it detours into from time to time. What ultimately saves the film, though, is the cast, led by three excellent performances from Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer and Anthony Mackie, as well as a bright, albeit underused, debut turn from Jillian Estell. They bring enough honesty to their characters, even when the film’s message gets a little too obvious.

I give Black or White a B (★★★).

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