Black or White (2014) / Drama-Comedy
aka Black and White
MPAA Rated: PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Mpho Koaho, Anthony Mackie, Bill Burr, Andre Holland, Paula Newsome, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Mike Binder
Screenplay: Mike Binder
Review published January 30, 2015
Writer-director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, Man About Town) reunites with Kevin Costner (Draft Day, 3 Days to Kill), whom he directed in one of his most successful dramedies, The Upside of Anger, and the team-up works well in both of their favors again in this courtroom drama. It's one of Costner's best performances in some time.
Costner stars as Los Angeles lawyer Elliot Anderson, whom we see grieving at the start from the sudden loss of his beloved wife (Ehle, RoboCop) in a tragic car accident. As his daughter had died during childbirth seven years ago, and the baby's father, Reggie (Holland, Selma), is a thieving crack-head, this leaves him as the sole guardian of his granddaughter Eloise (Estell, So This is Christmas). Without much clue on what to do, and with a mounting problem with alcohol, Elliot is having a tough enough go in trying to provide for the daily needs of Eloise when he finds himself in a custody battle with Eloise's paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer, Get On Up), who thinks the girl will find better care with her and her family in South Central LA.
Bolstered by a terrific cast, and some strong performances (with a surprisingly good turn by newcomer Jillian Estell as young Eloise), Black or White may suffer from length and a bit of Binder's tendency to ramble as a screenwriter, but there are enough strong and compelling moments found within to ultimately make it worthwhile. With all of the main players being inherently flawed, the answer to the main question on where Eloise will have her needs best provided for is always in doubt.
We empathize with Elliot because of his loss and his obvious love for his granddaughter, but his inability to deal with his raging alcoholism, even knowing it could cost him the one person in his life he holds dear, makes us question his resolve. Meanwhile, Rowena is a capable businesswoman who is used to providing and caring for members of her family, running a business from her home, but she has coddled Reggie from birth and refuses to see that he needs far more help than she can provide. Still, perhaps because the film is written and directed from the perspective of an affluent middle-aged Caucasian man, the more weight seems to be put on the side of the proverbial scales in which Elliot resides, which some viewers expecting an even-handed approach may find fault with.
The question on everyone's mind is if Elliot merely doesn't want to give up joint or full custody to Rowena because he fears Reggie's presence with sully Eloise's chance at a good life, or if his prejudiced outlook on Black people in general is what drives his thinking that going to a posh prep school in a White neighborhood is obviously what's better. What the film is really calling out is that racial divides and attitudes still continue to exist, even in this so-called post-racial society in which we have a biracial president in Obama.
The dramatic elements are what raises the stakes, but Binder does come from the world of comedy, and unfortunately, it is shoehorned in ways that cheapen the overall feel of the film. For instance, in order to make sure Eloise is getting quality help with her homework, Elliot hires a tutor from Craigslist, an African immigrant named Duvan, who seems to carry an endless supply of resumes, thesis papers, and other documents, all at the ready, to hand out to people who are disinterested in receiving them. Elliot's alcoholism is also the impetus for a few misplaced jokes, such as a scene in which he stumbles into the wrong vehicle when about to get on the road.
Binder's film does suffer from over-length, especially as the narrative begins to creak from the weight of the overwrought climax, but the director somehow manages to work himself out of several jams with his ability to write interesting characters and unique situations. It also helps when you have actors of this caliber to elevate the film from dropping too far down into maudlin material. While it will never be a definitive document on the current state of race relations in the country, Binder's sincerity (a similar event happened in his own family) in navigating through touchy subject matter pulls him through the occasional rough patches, to deliver some strong dramatic moments worth seeing.
©2015 Vince Leo