Black or White (2014)

blackorwhite_2014_poster
Black or White (2014)
  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Mike Binder
  • Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Ehle, Gillian Jacobs

Storyline:

Black or White is the story of a grandfather (Kevin Costner) who is suddenly left to care for his beloved granddaughter. When her paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) seeks custody with the help of her brother (Anthony Mackie), the little girl is torn between two families who love her deeply. With the best intentions at heart, both families fight for what they feel is right and are soon forced to confront their true feelings about race, forgiveness, and understanding. Anchored by an all-star cast and based on real events, the movie is a look at two seemingly different worlds, in which nothing is as simple as black or white.

One review

  • Black or White is a family drama about race relations that somehow elides the thornier aspects of its subject matter. Well-intentioned but deprived of nuance, writer-director Mike Binder’s second teaming with Kevin Costner makes for a palatable but ultimately toothless affair.

    ‚ÄčElliot Anderson (Costner) has just lost his wife (Jennifer Ehle, wasted in unnecessary flashbacks) in a car accident, and must contend with raising their biracial daughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). He does the best he can, even hiring the impressively learned and overly earnest Duvan (Mpho Koaho) to be Eloise’s math tutor and his right-hand man. Elliot and Eloise have an undeniably deep well of love for one another, but it is not enough to prevent Elliot from turning to alcohol to numb his pain.

    Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer), who shared a bond with Elliot’s wife, suggests shared custody so that Eloise can spend more time with her gaggle of cousins. Elliot refuses to even entertain the notion, worried that Eloise might be around the presence of her father Reggie (Andr√© Holland), a deadbeat junkie whom Elliot has never forgiven for impregnating his 17-year-old daughter who ended up dying in childbirth. Rowena launches a lawsuit for full custody of Eloise with the help of her lawyer brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), whose approach is to aggressively paint Elliot as someone who has a problem with black people.

    It’s well within Binder’s right to relate the story primarily from Elliot’s perspective, but there is a certain imbalance at play here. For a film that has made race its central conflict, race ends up the secondary narrative to Elliot’s redemption arc. Binder also cheapens the courtroom scenes with the bulldozing Rowena constantly being asked to tone down by Judge Cummins (Paula Newsome) – thought, to be honest, I would gladly watch an entire film comprised of nothing but Spencer and Newsome staring each other down.

    In many respects, Black or White would be a far stronger film drained of the racial matter. It’s reasonable that Elliot should be distrustful of Reggie’s reliability. It’s affecting to observe Reggie struggle to right himself for his daughter. How these two flawed men come to understand one another is enough to fuel the film. Add to that Eloise being torn between getting to know her real father and not wanting to leave the only father she has ever known. These are solid building blocks with which to construct a film. Binder may have overreached and, in the process, shortchanged both the family drama and the topic of race.

    Binder relies too much on the score for some of the emotional beats; quite an unnecessary tactic considering the level of talent present. Gillian Jacobs is woefully underused; her character could have been written off without a second thought. Comedian Bill Burr, as Elliot’s concerned friend and attorney, displays admirable restraint whilst Koaho shines as the African immigrant whose academic and emotional intelligence puts everyone else’s to shame. Spencer can play these types of roles in her sleep, but is always fine to watch.

    Costner is head and shoulders above the rest, uncovering layers in a character that could have easily tipped into the one-note. Elliot may be fuelled by rage and sorrow, but he is unbowed by the tragedies that life keeps throwing at him.

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