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Review: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer Can’t Save Monochromatic ‘Black or White’

Review: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer Can't Save Monochromatic 'Black or White'

“What is it about you that you don’t want to admit there’s a ‘there’ there?” Rowena (Octavia Spencer) asks Elliot (Kevin Costner) in “Black and White,” which followed its Toronto bow with its U.S. premiere Thursday night at the New Orleans Film Festival. They’re in the makeshift garage office where she runs a thriving real estate business, discussing the fate of their granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), but the “there” there is, in writer/director Mike Binder’s unsubtle hands, the Problem of Race in America. “Black and White” is a social message film as certain of its ennobling politics as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and ultimately as tepid. “The film,” as James Baldwin wrote of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 dramedy, “seems… to suggest that backward people can be found on both sides of the racial fence — a point which can scarcely be made so long as one is sitting on it.”

As suggested by the aisle dividing black and white mourners at a memorial service for Elliot’s late wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle), “Black and White” erects a racial fence between the two sides of Eloise’s family — her mother, who died in childbirth, was Elliot’s daughter, and her father is Rowena’s wayward son, Reggie (André Holland) — and straddles it, uncomfortably, right through to the denouement. Amid the courtroom wrangle for custody of Eloise, the film strikes a symphony’s worth of obvious chords. Here’s Elliot, struggling to comb out his granddaughter’s natural hair; there’s Rowena, the tough matriarch, striving to keep her blood ties close; in comes Reggie, unable to kick his crack habit or keep his promises. “You’re a goddamn cliché. You’re a perfect stereotype,” Rowena’s brother (Anthony Mackie), a successful attorney, chides Reggie, and unfortunately “Black and White” is too earnest to take his words as a warning.

Despite solid work from Costner, even more soused and paunchy than he was in Binder’s superb “The Upside of Anger” (2005), and Spencer, always a compelling presence, the film finally returns to the same understanding of race that has defined middlebrow American cinema since days of Stanley Kramer, which is to say no real understanding at all. “You’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem,” Mr. Drayton (Spencer Tracy) tells the beleaguered interracial couple in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” “This isn’t about black and white, this is about right and wrong,” Elliot testifies, desperate to hold on to Eloise even as his grief sends him spiraling. “Black and White” abounds with wonderful people, or at least decent ones, for whom race is a pigmentation problem, a first impression easily set aside once we see beyond the color of the skin.

In 1967, this notion may have been groundbreaking, but today it is simply tiresome. One glance at Ferguson, Missouri; Dayton, Ohio; Saratoga Springs, Utah; or any of the countless municipalities where racism regularly plays out not only as the misapprehension of character but also as the miscarriage of justice, is enough to suggest that nearly fifty years of mainstream Hollywood liberalism has done little more than point out that there’s a “there” there and leave it at that. Fittingly enough, the only truly bracing scene in the otherwise laggardly paced, halfheartedly conceived “Black and White” is the one that pulls back the veil of good intentions to reveal the place where individual animus and social cues collide. Without euphemism or dissembling, “Black and White” briefly hops off the fence, and its high horse, to treat racism for what it is — a system of dehumanization from which the privileged continue to benefit — before the moment of honest ugliness passes and the well-polished myth resumes. Baldwin, describing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” called this “the American self-evasion.” It lives on. 

Relativity plans an Oscar-qualifying year-end release–the announcement of the pickup was delayed by title issues which have changed the film title from”Black and White” to “Black or White.” It will have to score better reviews than the ones generated in Toronto for that to be a factor. 

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