“Black or White” opens nationwide this Friday, January 30, via Relativity…
Is it any wonder that a movie as lazily titled as “Black or White” fails to actually tackle issues of race and class in any meaningful way? Is it any wonder, when its writer and director is Mike Binder, a (white) filmmaker whose approach to storytelling has often lacked any semblance of nuance and subtlety? The movie, apparently “based on true events,” is about a custody battle over a 7-year-old biracial Eloise (charming child actress Jillian Estell), between her wealthy and recently widowed white grandfather Elliot (Kevin Costner), and black grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer).
When the movie begins, the little girl has been living with her white grandparents since the death of her teen mother at birth. However, after Elliott’s wife dies in a freak car accident, Rowena, a self-made woman who lives in Compton with a tight knit and sprawling extended family, thinks it’s time that Eloise grows up around other black people, fearing that she may lose a sense of her identity.
It’s a fairly intriguing premise, but one that must be handled delicately in order to work. Here, it doesn’t. Very much in the style of past Costner-collaboration, “The Upside of Anger,” Binder’s brand of comedy drama is far too broad. While Costner, whose swaggering charisma has always been his saving grace, turns in a decent performance, hinging on great chemistry with his child co-star, all the swagger in the world couldn’t save this film.
It’s a movie about race that doesn’t actually want to talk about race. Here, the focal point is the wealthy white man who we’re encouraged to root for, from the very beginning, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s in 90% of every scene. Octavia Spencer, once again, is called on to play a variation of the sassy black woman – her acting, as usual, is great, but she’s given little else to do than suck her teeth and roll her eyes, and provide both comic relief and obstacle for Elliot to overcome.
In fact, well-meaning or not, this movie is teeming with black stereotypes and stock characters that only show glimpses of depth, thanks to the actors, and not the script. There’s Anthony Mackie as the uppity Ivy-League educated lawyer who accuses Elliot of being racist (giving way to a five minute monologue in which Elliot essentially complains about the “race card”). There’s Eloise’s crack-addicted absentee father. There’s even her math tutor Duvan, a heavily accented academic from some unnamed African country, who tells stories of genocide, village life, and being chased down as a boy by gazelles. Seriously?
Binder, with his uninteresting, paint-by-numbers visual style, focuses more on Elliot’s grief (and mild alcoholism) than he does on this idea posed by Rowena, that Eloise might be grappling with issues of identity. We learn that she craves a relationship with the father she’s never met, but, other than a ridiculous scene where she asks her grandpa to comb out her kinky hair (what black girl combs out 4c hair dry?), how being biracial might actually be affecting her and not the adults in her life, is never really explored.
Nor is a moment when, Elliot, in a drunken rage, tells Eloise’s deadbeat dad to stop acting like some “street nigger,” later apologizing on the stand only to defend the use of the word by adding, “But I was only using the words he uses to describe himself.”
This isn’t a movie about race, although it would have us believe so. It’s a movie about white frustration, about the fear and anxiety of being called out as racist. “How am I supposed to respond to that,” Elliot complains, when Rowena suggests he doesn’t let his granddaughter visit Compton because of the black folk. “Here we go,” he sighs, when he’s confronted on the stand for his past behaviors towards black folk. A dramedy about a white man struggling with white guilt while raising a half-black grandchild isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed it could be quite compelling. But, ultimately, this movie ends up where all superficial explorations of race do – some over-sentimental, can’t-we’-all-just-get-along conclusion that holds no one accountable, on either side, for their past deeds.
The final nail in the coffin – a Jason Mraz song plays us out, the folk singer crooning out the cringe inducing lyrics, highlighting Binder’s overly simplistic perspective: “She’s got the best of both worlds…”
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.