Kevin Costner’s swinging for the fences when it comes to films that address race relations in the United States. Between this and “McFarland, USA,” he’s poised to play guardian angel for African-Americans and Latinos at a crossroads in their lives.
Costner, writer/director Mike Binder, and the rest of the cast of “Black or White,” including Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Ehle, and Bill Burr, have their hearts in the right place when it comes to the struggles of multiracial children and our country’s still festering racial biases, but “Black or White” is a film whose wholesome ambitions and decent performances are muddied by melodramatic dissonances and its milquetoast refusal to approach its complicated subject matter with any kind of teeth.
Elliot Anderson (Costner) is an affluent lawyer juggling two heartbreaking tragedies. As the film opens, he’s lost his wife (Jennifer Ehle) in a sudden car crash and he lost his daughter eight years prior in childbirth. He’s been raising his multiracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Esthel) and masking his hurt with booze. Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Spencer) attempts to obtain custody of Eloise from Elliot, who take each other to court with their respective lawyers (Mackie and Burr) in tow. It couldn’t read more like a daytime soap opera if it tried.
I feel like this film would have a lot more to say if its characters weren’t painted in the broadest strokes possible. Of course Elliot is a white lawyer who wears his biases on his sleeve. Of course Eloise’s father Reggie (Andre Holland) is a deadbeat crack addict. Of course Rowena is an entrepreneurial single mother who’s just naive enough to believe that her son has given up drugs for good even though he goes across the street to do them, a habit you figure that she would’ve put a stop to years ago. And of course Bill Burr and Anthony Mackie dig in and hit dirty as lawyers for the respective clients. It amounts to little more than “Gran Torino” with more courtroom battles, less insightfulness, and no Gran Torino.
While watching, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting the proceedings would’ve been if “Black or White” had been told from young Eloise’s perspective. I get the fact that Costner’s the big name star appeal and he’s producing and he has a big heart when it comes to things like this, and I applaud him for trying, but haven’t we seen the White Family And Black Family Arguing Over Contemporary Racial Politics That Eventually Devolves Into Milquetoast Moralizing done before? Even though she’s the object of everyone’s affection, her feelings are pushed to the side so we can hear Elliot drunkenly stumble through yet another social interaction. In a film whose premise alone dooms it to Overly Sentimental Ave. from the jump, working this tried and true story from the perspective of the multiracial child in the middle could’ve made for a more poignant narrative throughline.
The actors do their best to keep “Black or White” watchable amid all the cheese and heavy-handed yet hollow message mongering. Octavia Spencer can’t quite find the balance between comedy and drama that she worked to perfection in “Fruitvale Station,” and Anthony Mackie turns it up to 11 as her headstrong lawyer brother. Costner attempts to bring a subtlety to Elliot that the screenplay just won’t allow. In fact, the tone of Binder’s screenplay seems to be at odds, even at war, with the characters and the messages they’re trying to convey. I could feel the cast hinting at something more going on, but the screenplay kept them squarely on its well-worn rails. “Black or White” trips over itself in an attempt to be insightful about racial politics because Binder is too afraid to take his subject through the choppier waters that its characters seem to demand it go through.
-Dylan “Cinemasai” Green