Mark Reviews Movies

Black or White


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Binder

Cast: Kevin Costner, Jillian Estell, Octavia Spencer, Andre Holland, Mpho Koaho, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Gillian Jacobs

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight)

Running Time: 2:01

Release Date: 12/3/14 (limited); 1/30/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 29, 2015

For a movie that appears so desperate to address racial issues, Black or White sure pulls its punches. If not for the loaded title and a few mentions that perhaps its main character might appear a little bit racist sometimes, one might see the movie as an ordinary story of a custody battle. Writer/director Mike Binder clearly has other intentions, although it's never really clear what they are.

Is the fact that other characters suggest a man who obviously isn't a hateful bigot might be one somewhere deep-down a condemnation of how quickly race becomes an issue even in situations in which it clearly isn't one? Is the character actually racist somewhere deep-down, making the whole point a confession of his flaws? Is Binder just scrambling to bring some kind of social relevance to a standard melodrama?

The last choice seems the correct one, considering the other two options are brushed aside when the character in question says something along these lines: If noticing a person's skin color is racist, then, yes, he's a racist. That the movie's central thesis on matters of race comes in the form of a diatribe dripping in sarcasm is a bit pathetic. That it arrives after a buildup promising some righteous straight-talk on matter is laughable.

The rest of the movie toes the line of being pathetic and/or laughable in more ways than that, but the elephant in the room in discussing the movie is the way it treats race as, well, an elephant in the room. No one seems to want to talk about it, so Binder finds ways to force them to. Every time, those methods feel forced and unearned.

The setup is that Elliot (Kevin Costner) and his wife Carol (a wordless Jennifer Ehle) have been raising their granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) since their daughter died in childbirth. The movie opens with Elliot learning that his wife has died after a car accident. Elliot is not the hands-on parenting type, which we quickly discover as he tries to get Eloise ready for school the next morning. He finds it much easier to drown his emotions in a steady flow of his favorite liquor.

Some more information is needed, because none of this explains why race is even an issue in the movie. Well, Eloise is black, although Elliot likes to insist that she's "only half black" and still "half white" (Nobody points out that his undermining of his granddaughter's racial background is a bit questionable). Her father Reggie (André Holland) has been absent for most of his daughter's life, repeatedly getting into trouble with the law due to drug addiction. Elliot still blames Reggie for his daughter's death.

See, that's the point. Elliot hates Reggie, but it's not because of the color of his skin. It's because he's a good-for-nothing, absentee father with a dangerous past and no future that Elliot can see.

Reggie's mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, who's quite good here as a woman with perhaps too big and trusting a heart) believes her son can change. Her younger brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), the attorney who represents Rowena and Reggie in a custody hearing, scolds his nephew for being an ugly stereotype who confirms every negative thought white people might have about African Americans. That little rant, one supposes, is Binder's way of giving himself a free pass for making Reggie nothing more than an ugly stereotype who can only earn redemption by removing himself from the picture. It's also an excuse for Elliot to use a certain racial epithet without instantly damning him (He later apologizes in court without actually apologizing).

That's why the movie's portrait of racial concerns fails. It's as broad as the characters, who have problems with much deeper roots than whether or not Elliot, as a few characters say, has "a problem with black folks." Binder is just as clunky in establishing those problems.

Elliot spends a majority of the movie in a drunken stupor. He drinks from a tumbler while riding in a car, stumbles, slurs his words, and has dreams and visions of his dead wife. His colleague Rick (Bill Burr) gives him a convenient bit of armchair psychoanalysis: Elliot isn't an alcoholic; he's addicted to anger. Costner is fine in the character's moments of clarity, but the drunk act is overblown. It doesn't help that there's an unintentionally funny scene of a tense standoff between Elliot and Reggie (whose substance problems Binder juxtaposes to make the not-too-subtle point even more on-the-nose), which almost immediately turns into a stumbling competition (and then becomes even more unnecessarily excessive).

Yes, Black or White gets a lot of its big things wrong, but there are little things it gets right. Eloise's relationship with Elliot is sweet but honest in the way it grows shakier as the girl realizes that there's something missing from her family, and the movie doesn't hammer that point. Rowena is the sort of well-rounded character that makes the custody battle one with some actual tension. There's a simple, candid story of familial crisis, which happens to involve race, in here, but the movie's ambition far outreaches its grasp.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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