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‘Black Or White’ Attempts to Bridge the Racial Divide [REVIEW]

Solid performances and touchy subject matter are both featured in this family dramedy.

Jillian Estell and Octavia Spencer
Credit: Tracy Bennett

Black or White, the Mike Binder-directed film, is a story about love across racial lines that is loosely based on Binder’s real-life story. After major studios passed on the project, it was funded by Binder’s long-time friend and the star of the movie, Kevin Costner. For his part, Costner does an excellent job bringing to life the sad, cantankerous drunk that is his character. As a man recently widowed and left to care for his young, bi-racial granddaughter, Costner gives one of his most vulnerable performances to date and continues to prove how thoroughly watchable he is onscreen. Co-stars Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie and newcomer Jillian Estelle also turn in inspired work. The young actress, who had to beat out thousands of other hopefuls for the role of Costner’s granddaughter, Eloise, gives the story the heart it needs. 

Unfortunately, Binder relies heavily on racial stereotypes to tell his story. Costner is the predictably affluent white man, a partner at a firm living in a well-to-do neighborhood complete with a pool and Spanish-speaking maid. Eloise’s father (played by Andre Holland) is the dead-beat dad, a street thug who seems to prefer spending his time getting high than being a real presence in his daughter’s life. The beginning half of the movie slowly sets the stage for the ultimate courtroom battle over who should retain custody of Eloise. Should she continue to live with her grandfather, who’s been her parental figure for much of her life, or should she stay with her biological grandmother (Spencer), the maternal presence she so desperately needs after her mother and maternal grandmother have passed away?

There’s no easy answer, though things are wrapped up a bit too tidly in the end, and oftentimes heavy scenes are approached too simplistically to make a real impact. What can and should be admired about the film, though, is its courage. Even when some of its bravado is lost in glossed-over issues and heavily scripted (yet rousing) dialogue, the movie’s purpose remains clear. Both Spencer and Costner’s characters care more about family than they do race, though outside parties try to fuel the argument by bringing color into the mix.

The film attempts to maintain a fair view of both sides. Yes, Costner’s character can provide stability and a financially secure life for Eloise, but he’s also stricken with grief and resentment after the earlier death of his daughter and more recent passing of his wife and can often be found with a glass of liqour glued to his hand. Spencer’s character, on the other hand, is full of tough love and offers Eloise the family, history and culture she’s assuredly missing out on in her solitary life with her grandfather, but her son’s penchant for getting into trouble, his violent outbursts and life-crippling addictions make moving Eloise out to Compton to be with her father’s side of the family so questionable. Meaningful commentary on issues of race and deliberate effort on the part of the director and actors not to shy away from things too sensitive or hard to talk about give the film integrity and the performances greater value. 

Black or White is no Selma (a movie which deserves more recognition than it’s received), but its timeliness can’t be ignored. Perhaps it isn’t the most revealing look at race and racial issues in this country (it has that feel-good family tint that promises a happier ending than most similar real-life situations), but at least it has the courage to try. 

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