If you are going to head off into a minefield, you probably don’t want to weigh yourself down with a lot of extra baggage. The movie “Black or White” ignores this sensible advice and attempts to tackle race relations in America while grabbing every suitcase it can find.
The movie stars Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a grandfather who finds himself raising his mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) all by his lonesome when his wife suddenly dies.
It’s a little unclear what Elliot had been doing before, but he seems wholly unfamiliar with how to take care of Eloise and he copes with it all by becoming a barely-functioning alcoholic. The movie tries to counter the uncomfortableness of a drunken Kevin Costner by mixing in a cute getting-to-know-you montage between a grandfather and granddaughter who learn a lot about each other in spite of having shared the same house for several years.
But this movie’s just getting warmed up when it comes to melodramatic pitfalls. On the other side of the family is Eloise’s other grandmother Rowena (played by Octavia Spencer with all the bug-eyed sass she can muster).
Rowena makes the rather reasonable suggestion Eloise spend some time with her side of the family in South Central Los Angeles. Elliot will have none of it, mostly because he blames Eloise’s deadbeat father for the death of his daughter, which left Eloise orphaned and abandoned.
Left with no other recourse, Rowena has her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a high-powered attorney, sue Elliot for custody of Eloise.
Oh boy, now we’ve got ourselves a courtroom drama! The proceedings are further complicated by the return of Eloise’s father Reggie (Andre Holland), a stereotypical, crack-smoking loser.
Setting aside the layer-cake of issues this movie attempts to get us to digest (I’m not even going to try to get into the comic-relief, African-born tutor played by Mpho Koaho that Elliot hires), let’s just look at the main, underlying problem of “Black or White.”
Writer/director Mike Binder allegedly based this movie on experiences in his own life, which is all well and good, but we’ve reached a point that getting a lesson on race from a middle-aged, upper-class white dude comes off as a little tone-deaf.
Even when well-intentioned — which I believe this movie is — broad, sweeping, can’t-we-all-just-get-along moralizing only opens the door for cringe-worthy moments, which this movie has plenty of.
Speaking as a well-off white man, we’ve been well-heard on this subject for the past couple hundred years. Maybe we should take a cue from Champ Kind and stop talking for a while.
I like Costner and you could argue he does more acting work here than he has at any other point in his career (dude couldn’t even be bothered to do an English accent while playing Robin Hood for Pete’s sake), and I think he could have made this movie work if it had stayed small and intimate as opposed to trying to solve all of society’s ills.
As it is, this is just another January movie to be ignored and forgotten, which is probably best for everyone involved.
“Black or White” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight.