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TIFF Review: ‘Black And White’ Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie, Gillian Jacobs And More

TIFF Review: 'Black And White' Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie, Gillian Jacobs And More

It was almost a decade ago when Paul Haggis‘ "Crash" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and began its journey to the Academy Awards, where it would win three statues, including the Oscar for Best Picture. The backlash was swift, with the intervening years (somewhat unfairly) painting the movie as a mawkish, simplistic look at race relations in contemporary America. But no matter what your thoughts on the film, it’s a work of courage, nuance and bravery when compared to Mike Binder‘s "Black And White," a movie that lays down its thematic concerns broadly and clumsily, with all the obviousness of the title itself, while refusing to commit in any real way to the issues it confronts. 

Kevin Costner plays hugely successful Los Angeles attorney Elliot Anderson, who has escaped down the bottle to cope with two devastating deaths. First, he lost his daughter at the age of 17-years-old, when she died giving birth to his biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), who he and his wife have cared for ever since. But as the film opens, his world his shattered again when his wife (played in ghostly form in a couple of scenes by a wasted Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a car crash. So now he’s left alone to raise the precocious Eloise, one of those "Movie Kids" who comes prepackaged with cutesy, worldly wisdom. The definition of a functioning alcoholic, Elliot’s money certainly provides anything a child would need or want growing up—a big house with a yard and pool, education at a fancy private school—but with both his wife and daughter gone, there’s a distinct lack of a traditional family unit. And so in comes Eloise’s lower middle-class African-American grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer)—the mother of the man who got Elliot’s daughter pregnant, who has spent the time since on drugs or in jail or both—who launches a lawsuit for full custody of Eloise, after Elliot turns down the idea of shared custody.

And so, the ingredients are certainly here for an intriguing drama about the intersection of race and class, the position facing a young person brought up between two wildly different worlds, and the difficult questions faced when making a decision that will impact the future of a child. But Binder isn’t interested in exploring those notions in any great measure. Those are just the fussy details that eventually propel the film into a tedious third act courtroom procedural, while the movie’s attempt to address the race issue are tentative and wary at best. This is down to the tone of "Black And White," where for every moment its serious about what the film perceives to be taboo topics of race, it veers toward comedy to safely avoid taking any kind of definitive stand. Ultimately, "Black And White" just wants everyone to get along, and so it’s not really race that’s the issue between Elliot and Rowena, it’s personality.

In full grizzly bear mode, Costner spends much of the movie with a drink in his hand, not unlike Ricky from "Trailer Park Boys" (and this is not an exaggeration, even in a car, Elliot has a glass in hand, with a drink already poured), growling at the world around him. He’s fuelled by anger and alcohol, teetering on the edge of self-destruction. Meanwhile, Spencer’s Rowena is as energetic and lively as Elliot is rumpled and weary. The court case is more or less just another wacky adventure for the entrepreneurial Rowena, who runs six businesses to help support a vast extended family. Spencer seems to be on autopilot here, with most of her acting reduced to bug eyed mugging for the camera, in more of the film’s unsuccessful and ill-advised attempts to lighten the mood each time the stakes get raised.

But it’s not just the leads who find their characters painted into one-dimensional boxes. Duvan (Mpho Koaho), a brainiac African refugee hired by Elliot to tutor Eloise in a math, teach her piano and also earn a few bucks driving him around when he’s too intoxicated to get behind wheel, exists mostly for more cheap laughs. He’s an earnestly studious young man who walks around with a leather briefcase full of papers he’s written on almost every subject you can imagine. And so, for example, when he crucially takes the stand in the eventual courtroom sequence, Binder is sure to have Duvan give the judge one of his research papers because hilarious. On the opposite end of the spectrum, as Rowena’s attorney, Anthony Mackie goes full sleazeball, attempting to paint Elliot as a racist to win the case, in what is the film’s closest thing resembling a villain. But like the everything else in "Black And White," the character is all histrionics and little depth, but as far Binder is concerned, the real bad guy in the film is prejudice. 

To drive that point home, the film is crafted so the story drives toward "The Big Speech," which star and producer Costner gets to deliver, on the stand no less. Dogged by accusations that he’s got an issue with African Americans (and not helped by his single use of the n-word, uttered toward Eloise’s father, which is brought up during the trial), Elliot explains that yes, skin color is the first thing he notices when he meets someone new, but he judges them by their actions, and that’s the only criteria by which he makes his assessment of somebody. And that moment is representative of the entire movie, one that wants to be a mature look at modern racism, while carefully weaving and skirting around actually defining what that means in this day and age.

Simply, "Black And White" is detached from reality, and one only has to look at the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri to see how far removed from the real world this film truly is. The issues of widening economic and class gaps, institutionalized racism, targeted policing and more, continue to simmer at a high heat on the American psyche. But Binder’s film hardly touches the raw emotion that sears between the advantaged and disadvantaged, between those for whom opportunity is a given, and others where it continues to be a hard fought right. But most crucially, "Black And White" stumbles because the perspective of the story is told entirely from the wrong perspective. The film fails because it’s centrally about a white man redeeming himself and his reputation, all while it sidelines the two most crucial people of the story: Eloise and her junkie father Reggie, played by Andre Holland (currently doing terrific work on "The Knick").

The scourge of drugs and the myth of the "absent black father" are two big issues facing the African American community, and Binder misses a real opportunity to actually talk about something substantive by incorporating Eloise and Reggie into the central narrative. We’re not given enough background on Reggie to understand how he fell into drugs or the obstacles he faces as a young, ex-con father trying to get back on his feet. When Mackie’s lawyer exclaims that Reggie is "cliché" of poor, black men, only Binder is to blame for such thin characterization. Reggie’s brief appearances in the movie only serve to underscore that Elliot is in better shape to raise his granddaughter. And Eloise—torn between members of her own family, and currently residing in a community where’s few faces like her own—is never given the space to express what her feelings might be given she has a dead mother, a father not yet capable to raising her and an alcoholic grandfather, all while separated physically and financially from the rest of her blood relatives. This is a lot for a child to consider and contemplate, but Binder shies away from it, and even when Eloise goes to see psychiatrist for court mandated sessions, the writer/director doesn’t follow the character behind the closed door.

Woefully misguided, "Black And White" is at times painfully quaint and obtuse about contemporary issues surrounding race and class. While it’s a topic that can be addressed with some humor, Binder doesn’t seem to have the understanding of the complexity of the very issues he brings up to be given that leeway. And the film’s sentiments are so hollow they wind up doing an injustice to the very real problems that exist in a world where racial inequality and the myriad of concerns the spring from it, are far more complex than simply black and white. [D]

Catch up with all our coverage from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival here

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Comments

Dale

Please get the name of the movie correct. Otherwise, everything you say will be of no meaning.

Rick

You are the one who missed the boat here. You seem to be caught up in your own cliche’ of race relations. Go see the movie again, but this time leave your tired out preconceptions of what drives incidents like Ferguson, Missouri, at home. You my friend are the one who is "far removed from the real world…", not this movie. I was impressed with the courage and insights shared through a movie that dared to entertain at the same time it dealt with a serious subject.

disgusted by PC

why everything has to be so accusatory of white people ? I’m disgusted by this article. it’s a good movie, to bad you’re so consumed by your "I’m guilty because I’m white " mentality ! shame on you !

Kenji

Yo, Fan(s), please at the reviewer’s photo and then "slash some water on your face". After that, consider rereading your inane, semi-literate comments before posting.

Kenji

Yo, Fan(s): maybe you should "slash some water" on your own face and take another look at the writer’s pic. After that, take a glance at the options Spell Check gives you and at least reread your inane comments before posting.

Kenji

"Yo, Fan(s): maybe you should "slash some water" on your own face and take another look at the writer’s pic. After that, take a glance at the options Spell Check gives you and at least reread your inane comments before posting.

VJP

How much credibility does your site have when you can’t even get the name of the movie that you are reviewing correct, printing it incorrectly over and over and over again…

John Clark

Having been through the Family Court system in Los Angeles, I can tell you that the film is far from what happens in real life. First off, the courtrooms should be shown to be small, along a long dismal corridor. This was shot in what looked more like the grand looking criminal court building. Inside the courtroom, the deputy keeps order, and no judge would permit any talking from the front. Witnesses would be sworn in, and none would be permitted to talk at length, unless invited by their attorney. Also, the child should be seen in the courtroom, they are required to be there. This was a lost opportunity to tell the true story of the disfunctionality of how a family court works. The denouement didn’t seem to explain how it resolved that the grandfather was awarded custody. This would have been ordered to be a shared custody arrangement, given that set of facts. Based on a true story, we’re told, but it didn’t have a "been there, done that" feel to it. The judge was terrific though, almost stole the show for me.

GS

The film is riddled with broad generalizations and over-played stereotypes. For the people who are making the claim, “black people love the movie,” I am a black person who detested the film because it was full of grandstanding speeches that are obviously the filmmaker’s attempts to spew self-righteous rants all over the audience. Just because you let the n-word fly a couple times, doesn’t mean you’re being "confrontational" about the race issue. It just means a person is too lazy to confront their own ignorance.

GS

played stereotypes. For the people who are making the claim, “black people love the movie,” I am a black person who detested the film because it was full of grandstanding speeches that are obviously the filmmaker’s attempts to spew self-righteous rants all over the audience. Just because you let the n-word fly a couple times, doesn’t mean you’re being "confrontational" about the race issue. It just means a person is too lazy to confront their own ignorance.

Lola

What movie were you watching? It was a poignant, believable story with interesting and well-rounded characters. The acting was first rate. What other movies have you crying from the opening credits? I am fussy about the movies I like, and I was really impressed with this film. Bravo!

jay

Your Trailer Park Boys reference is wrong, it's not Ricky who always has a drink in hand, it's Julian.

Frank

It's Julian from Trailer Park Boys that carries a drink at all times. Not Ricky. Although they both drink heavily, Julian's character is never seen without a glass of rum n coke throughout the series and films. C'mownow

Lanie

Why am I not surprised that some critic already comes out ready to bruise up a movie that is not some rehashed, redone, repeated junk we have seen before and we're seeing sequel four or five…whatever. WE want and WE need new stuff. How many more Expendables, Iron Man, Spider Man, junk that stars SPECIAL EFFECTS instead of REAL actors actually acting are we expected to stomach? Your review is worthless. Get a clue.

stp

Look who wrote and directed it. I'm sure he did his research.

Toronto festival fan

You must have seen a different movie than the 3 thousand people I saw it with. It got a long standing ovation and the people we walked out with were gutted. This review is crazy. Costners speech on being a racist is one of the best thing I've ever seen.

Attended

I was there, yes not the heft of "Crash" but wasn't meant to be, the humour injected was binding for the audience, I think this film shows what a decade has brought, good news. Cudos to strong supporting, unsung (so far) Reggie and Lewis? Rowena's attorney brother!

Fan of Black & White

KEVIN JAGERNAUTH – your review is silly, stupid and unbalanced. I see you have some sort of "white mans guilt". Truth is – Blacks love this film – trend and influeance setters like Oprah have indorced the film. I found the film to be topical – on the money – confrontational – funny and with a feel good happy ending. You need slash some water on your face and wake up.

Gods child

The n-word is by far what the focus should have been on. Here is a little girl that lost her mother she never knew due to dying in childbirth, a father that doesn’t see her, she has took on the role of the adult. Very little attention is actually given to verses before her grandmother passed, do you think she has struggled being biracial, or does she blame herself for her mothers death, how would like to be pulled one place to the other. Yes Race is an issue everywhere, though instead of learning from other cultures embracing an opportunity to learn from our brothers and sisters instead of making comments in hopes of tearing the white man or the black man down. It was 9 million dollar movie so I give Mr. C props at least he actually had good intentions whether it was good or bad. At least he is trying to bring races together. We have to ask ourselves what are we doing besides complaining. We are all colored. At least I have never seen a Crayola box that read 23 colors and 1 unknown. And I don’t suppose people are still trying to figure out what that white stuff is on vehicles. For anyone who believes only whites are oppressors should read The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano or better yet research “April” a man not a woman. Everything has a past that can’t be changed but we have a future that can. We should all practice the change that we so often say we want.If we can’t love one another on earth how can we ever expect to love each other in heaven.

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