There are plenty of reasons why “Black or White” fails. It’s schmaltzy and has far too many intentionally created moments hoping that you dive for the Kleenex. However, the subject matter, even when fumbled, is thought provoking and fairly brave.
Of course, there is the danger of director/writer Mike Binder, a white guy, jumping with both feet into a story about race. Unfortunately, the delivery of Binder’s story is what is at fault in “Black or White”. There are great points made by several characters, white and black included, but there are far too many moments when that message is spoon fed to you as if there’s no possible way an audience could interpret what that message is.
“Black or White” starts on what Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) calls the worst day of his life. His wife has tragically died and he is left alone to take care of his granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). There is quite a bit of backstory on how Elliot and his wife came to care for their daughter’s child. Her father, Reggie (Andre Holland), is black and his various problems are slowly divulged in a very effective, interesting way.
As one would assume, Eloise’s paternal side of her family is black. Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) is her grandmother and once she learns that Elliot’s wife, with whom she had a great relationship, has died, Rowena quickly acts and attempts to get custody of Eloise.
This sets up what could easily be a stereotypical battle between the rich, white lawyer living in his Los Angeles palace and the poor, black realtor living across the street from a crack den in Compton. Binder smartly avoids all these cliched preconceptions and frames Elliot as an angry, bitter old alcoholic while Rowena manages six businesses and cares for most of her extended family.
Each side lawyers up, with Elliot enlisting his law firm partner, Rick (Bill Burr). Rowena happens to have a brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), that is an exceptionally successful family attorney.
If each conversation wasn’t so forced, this dilemma would be very convincing. Elliot’s lawyers decide to drive home the fact that Eloise’s father has been absent for her entire life while battling, among other things, a serious drug problem. Jeremiah goes right for the throat, flat out saying that Elliot is a full-fledged racist.
Unfortunately, “Black or White” tries to spell everything out for us. During some cross examination practice, Jeremiah rips Reggie to shreds and exposes all his flaws and warts. Instead of just allowing the audience to determine what is happening, he says far too much and the movie reaches levels of “Crash”-like preachiness.
None of this is the fault of Anthony Mackie, who is his usual fantastic self. Binder’s screenplay lets him down, even though it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. He’s a natural actor and it’s unexplainable how he is not a massive movie star by now.
While Spencer does go a bit over the top at times, she is convincing as a mother and grandmother that wants nothing more than the best for her family. She unconditionally loves her children and she never becomes annoying or grating while showing it. This is a role that could have gotten irritating very quickly, but Spencer really holds back and is very enjoyable.
Kevin Costner is a rare bird. He has thousands of detractors, yet he’s able to raise a movie like “Black or White” to a level it has no business achieving. Simply put, this is the best acting that he has ever done. He’s a bit unlikable, even when he’s being charming, and he plays a drunk better than just about any actor alive.
The entire movie essentially exists for a monologue that Costner delivers while being cross examined during Eloise’s custody hearing. It’s a wonderfully written piece about race and the daily ongoing battle regarding racism. It doesn’t pull any punches and Costner nails every single word. It’s heartbreaking and brutally honest, which the rest of the movie could have desperately used.
At the end of the day, “Black or White” is about two people who think they are better than the other at taking care of a child. Each side has faults and some are pointed out in smart, clever ways, others in a finger-wagging scolding-type way.
Is “Black or White” a perfect missive about race relations? No, it’s not. If anything, the movie’s message is that there are good people, there are flawed people, and their race shouldn’t be an issue. It’s too naive and, at times, loaded with sunshine in painting race relations with such easy brushstrokes, as if racial utopia could be achieved via pretty words.
If “Black or White” wasn’t trying to wrap everything up with a cute little bow, it may have pulled it off.