This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
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 Or 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 Or 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 Or White” stumbles because the film is told from entirely 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.
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 Or 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 or white. [D]