Black or White
Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Ehle
Writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me) has good intentions with his latest film Black or White. While it’s not exactly what you think it’s about, even the lead character, played by the 2015 comeback kid Kevin Costner, constantly explains why it’s not a color issue. Black or White has its sights set on the same audience that made The Help such a hit (every color, both genders, all age groups). However, unlike the solid structure of The Help that had you laughing one moment and crying the next, the comedy here isn’t that funny and the emotional moments never manifest. Costner and Spencer both give good performances, but the script and the unfit saxophone aided score hamper its potential.
After the death of their 17 year old daughter during childbirth, Elliot (Costner) and his wife have raised their multiracial granddaughter Eloise (Estell) as their own. When Elliot’s wife/Eloise’s grandmother is killed in a car accident, he becomes the sole legal guardian. Devastated by loss and now charged with raising a 10-year-old, Elliot must also battle with the other grandmother Rowena (Spencer), who has made a claim in court that the little girl should spend more time “with her own kind”. The two families who have a dark past, now air their dirty laundry in court to decide who Eloise will live with.
Every time Black or White reaches towards an emotional moment, the comic relief ruins it, as if the script doesn’t want us to take this too seriously.
The Upside of Anger was to date Binder’s best film because he got the balance of comedy and drama right, not to mention Costner in an impressive supporting performance. He seems to strive for that balance here, but you have a very serious subject, the well-being of a young child, death, substance abuse, custody battles and weaved in between these dramatic subjects you have “Tyler Perry” type comedy. Every time Black or White reaches towards an emotional moment, the comic relief ruins it, as if the script doesn’t want us to take this too seriously. Where the script does succeed is showing the human flaws on both sides of the argument. “It’s not about black or white. It’s about right or wrong”.
Rowena, also called “WeWe”, has a distorted sense of family, she is praised for being a self-made, successful woman, owning three houses and various business, seemingly well off; yet chooses to live across the street from a crack house (that didn’t add up to me). Another element of the film that I found particularly strong was the supporting character Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho) who not only provides some of the few honest moments of laughter but the sweet ones as well. Spencer (Get on Up, Snowpiercer) continues to be quite a scene stealer in every role, but she is more or less a modern day version of the character she won the Oscar for. Costner does his typical curmudgeon, but he does it so well. I just wish the script and the direction would have taken this film where it really needed to go.
The emotional moments of the film are too often sacrificed for comic relief to deliver much impact.