Well meaning but wrong headed, “Black or White” tries to assess the tricky subject of race relations in the U.S. during the second Obama Administration through a contrived tale of a child custody battle between a matriarch of a black family and patriarch of a white family in Los Angeles.
When the film made its Toronto festival debut it was called “Black and White.” But writer-director Mike Binder has apparently changed his title to be an either/or, no-doubt-about-it confrontation. Only Binder stacks the deck and takes conventional routes that manage to avoid the very issues he means to tackle.
Kevin Costner, who worked with Binder on the much more complex and nuanced “The Upside of Anger,” plays the aging, alcoholic White man at the focus point of the conflict, the man who may or may not be prejudiced despite the fact the child he is fighting over is biracial.
Meanwhile on the Black side is Octavia Spencer, the matriarch of an extended family in South Central L.A., who runs many businesses out of her home. She suffers fools not at all but has an unapologetic soft spot for a crackhead, screw-up son who happens to be the biological father of the granddaughter in question.
The problem here is American filmmakers want you to like their protagonists, which can pretty much take the edges off prickly individuals. So these two antagonists are clearly terrific people, neither one a candidate for being a closet bigot, only each with a blind spot.
Sure, Costner’s Elliott drinks too much — a convenient flaw of choice for screenwriters who don’t want to darken a character too much. Having lost a daughter and now a wife to cruel fate, who can really blame him seeking solace in a bottle?
Sure, Spencer’s Rowena has no business going to court to win custody of her granddaughter for a junkie son Reggie (André Holland). But she’s a mother isn’t she?
If Elliott were simply sober and crotchety along with being mistrustful of his black in-laws and Rowena someone with equally deep suspicions about white folks, then you might — might, mind you — have the makings of dramatic fireworks with one Oscar winner going against another.
Once the lawsuit becomes about a giving a child to a man who can’t take care of himself the whole thing makes no sense. Which isolates a really interesting character, Anthony Mackie’s plaintive’s attorney, who just happens to be Rowena’s brother.
Jeremiah works for a powerful downtown law firm (whose partners seem to be entirely black). He seems genuinely aggrieved against white men, such as Elliott, men with quiet prejudices that never rise to the level of out-and-out bigotry but whose actions always betray subtle bias.
Again, once the lawsuit is amended so it’s no longer between two grandparents with equal claims to a child’s upbringing to being about a crackhead father who has never been a part of his daughter’s life, then the movie is frankly silly. So Jeremiah never is allowed to truly state the case against the Elliotts of the world.
At one point Elliott does use the n-word against Reggie and this is used to score a major point against him in court. However, Binder makes certain that in context the epitaph is not a pejorative but rather a reflection of Reggie’s irresponsible behavior.
But what if Elliott had not been so circumspect? What if he really meant it?
You’ll never know because Binder wants you to feel for Elliott’s pain and suffering and enjoy Rowena’s take-no-prisoners attitude. His characters wear easy labels along with hearts on their sleeves rather than holding long-standing resentments that just might be taken for narrow-mindedness or intolerance.
Instead the pleasures of this movie fall more to actors’ performances. Costner is reliably determined and interesting when not required (as he too often is) to play the stumbling drunk. Spencer can use more facial expressions in a single scene than some actors manage in a career, which makes her Rowena formidable and funny.
Mpho Koaho gets deserved laughs as the comic relief, an overqualified math tutor for the young girl who becomes Elliot’s driver when drinking prevents him from piloting his own car.
Finally, seven-year-old Jullian Estell (above, right) more than holds her own against Oscar winners as the spunky and vivacious Eloise, the little girl everyone is fighting over.
A minor irritant is that the story is supposedly set in L.A. but New Orleans locations look nothing like Los Angeles. Why not just set the story there, which might actually make more sense?
Opens: January 30, 2105 (Relativity Media)
Production companies: Treehouse Films in association with Sunlight Production and IM Global
Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, André Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Anthony Mackie
Director/screenwriter: Mike Binder
Producers: Mike Bonder, Kevin Costner, Todd Lewis
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Rod Lake, Jasa McCall, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Jacob Pechenik, Andy Neuberger, Robert Ogden Barnum, Alex Gartner
Director of photography: Russ T. Alsobrook
Production designer: Pipo Wintter
Music: Terence Blanchard
Costume designer: Claire Breaux
Editor: Roger Nygard
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes