Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer and Jillian Estell
2014 was a rough year. It was a year where the world not-so-suddenly came to the realization that, for as much progress as we thought was made since the Civil Rights era, things really haven’t changed that much. It’s telling that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the defining popular films of that period — it’s dated as all hell now, even with all of its good progressive intentions, and it’s pretty hard to come to terms with it ever being seen as even slightly radical. That seems doubly obvious when viewing Black or White, Mike Binder’s well-intentioned but painfully retrograde, borderline-noxious look at race relations in the modern age. I don’t think Binder set out to make a slightly classed-up Bringing Down the House, but he came perilously close.
After his wife dies in a freak car accident, middle-aged lawyer Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) is left to care for his young granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Eloise is half-black, the product of an illicit relationship between Elliot’s now-deceased teenage daughter (she died during childbirth) and a ne’er-do-well crack addict from Compton named Reggie (André Holland). She’s only ever lived with her grandfather, but Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) shows up to the funeral with the idea that Eloise should be raised in a more familial setting, closer to her people. She files for custody using the expertise of her younger brother (Anthony Mackie), but things get complicated when the long-absent Reggie re-enters the picture.
It’s not a particularly strong concept to hinge a movie about such important and weighty issues on in the first place. Rowena’s arguments don’t come across as particularly sound, and Eloise makes it obvious from the get-go that she would rather stay with her grandfather no matter what, positioning Rowena as not exactly a villain (she’s really the character that has her shit together the most, but she also needs to hold on to petty grudges for the narrative’s sake) but certainly a hurdle that needs to be cleared. A fair and balanced portrait of the two parties might have made for an interesting sparring match, but Binder isn’t really interested in that, either. Black or White is mostly about how the things that happen in Elliot’s life can make him a better, more sober rich white guy. We barely see Rowena’s life outside of when Elliot barges into it; we have no inkling whether or not she’d give her granddaughter a better life, because all we see of it is the seat of some conflict or exposition spew.
Binder doesn’t seem to have much faith in the film’s dramatic value. There isn’t an impassioned speech, dramatic outburst or snippy bon mot that he doesn’t punctuate with a bug-eyed reaction shot (granted, Spencer is spectacularly talented at throwing shade, but shade does not a movie make) or pithy punchline. It’s a dramedy in the most pathetic, self-doubting sense, incapable of living in the moment without also making sure we at least get a laugh out of it. The most cringeworthy narrative function is held by Mpho Koaho as Duvan, an overachieving African immigrant who tutors Eloise in math. The massacre of his entire village is played off as a joke (!) and he serves mostly to point out that the film’s conflict is squarely between black and white Americans; black people from the rest of the world may as well be fucking space aliens in the world of Black or White.
Costner, Spencer and the rest of the cast do their best to bring the characters to life, but there’s nary a moment in Black or White’s 121 minutes that feels remotely real. Costner’s approximation of drunk comes across like Mickey Rourke in a production of Harvey, while Spencer mostly throws dirty looks and slaps people upside the head. It’s really Estell who feels the most natural in her role, though the overwritten precociousness sometimes throws her character into otherworldly moppet territory. (For what it’s worth, comedian Bill Burr plays Costner’s friend and attorney. He gets maybe two funny lines in the whole thing and a whole lot of legal jargon to unspool.)
I don’t think Binder is ill-intended here. It’s a difficult subject to approach, and treating it in this essentially comic way is downright suicidal. But a film about the redemption arc of a rich, white, middle-aged drunk isn’t a movie about race relations, no matter what Binder throws at said drunk. Black or White is convoluted in all the wrong ways and sometimes insulting to the audience’s intelligence, but I don’t think it’s evil. I would just like to think that we’ve taken at least a baby step forward since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, not just a medium-sized step sideways. ■
Black or White opens in theatres today, Friday, Jan. 30. Watch the trailer here: