If you’ve seen any of the adverts for Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer’s new melodrama, Black or White, you might be under the mistaken assumption that it’s another cloying, heartwarming movie that, like The Help, attempts to tackle race issues in the kind of stark black and white terms that doesn’t make white audiences feel uncomfortable.
Black or White is not that movie, but it is a clumsy, misguided film about race relations that’s further muddied by a weak, tone-deaf script and hamstrung by terrible editing that doesn’t do any favors to an otherwise solid ensemble of actors that also includes Anthony Mackie, Bill Burr, Gillian Jacobs, and the typically phenomenal Andre Holland (The Knick). You never realize until you see it, but bad editing can completely destroy a performance by lingering for a few beats too long, choosing a bad take (if there are options), or even badly mixing in sound. From a purely technical standpoint, Black or White is a painfully clumsy mess that degrades an already abysmal film.
Putting that aside, the social message it’s trying to relay is also either unclear (that’s the generous version) or really, really fucked up.
Let me lay out the plot, and maybe you can pinpoint the issue.
As advertised, Black or White is about a custody dispute between the grandfather, Elliott (Kevin Costner), of a mixed race child, Eloise (Jillian Estell), and her black grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), after the wife of Elliot dies in a car accident. But that’s not really what’s at play. It takes a while for story to finally arrive there, but the grandmother is actually attempting to win full custody of Eloise on behalf of her son, Reggie (André Holland), a deadbeat, crack-addicted man who abandoned his daughter after the 17-year-old mother died in childbirth. Since then, he’s only seen his daughter for about an hour over the course of her entire life, and only arrives in Elliot’s life when he needs more money to support his drug addiction, money he often demands at knifepoint in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, Elliot is a successful lawyer with a maid who has put Eloise in an expensive private school and hired an overqualified tutor to teach her math. The catch, however, is that Elliot is also an alcoholic, a problem that is exacerbated after his wife dies.
Initially, it appears as though the custody battle will be between Elliot and Rowena, who is arguing that Eloise should have more exposure to the black side of her family. Within that plot trajectory, there’s a relatively even-handed debate between a privileged white, single grandfather and a black grandmother with a large, loving family. That movie might offer a feel-good ending that sees the old white guy coming to appreciate black culture after he’s immersed into it and ultimately allowing his granddaughter to spend more time with her other family in South Central Los Angeles. That film would probably also involve Kevin Costner delivering bad hip-hop slang.
But that’s not where Black or White ultimately goes. In the end, the tension is not between Elliot and Rowena, but between Elliot and Reggie, who reappears in the life of Eloise in order to leverage more money out of Elliot in exchange for giving up custodial rights. The choice the family court judge is ultimately faced with is this: Should she give custody of Eloise to her black deadbeat father who has a history of violence and drug abuse, or Elliott, who is a white drunk?
What I believe is at play here is that Mike Binder is very, very badly trying to suggest that Elliot and Reggie are essentially equally flawed, only we don’t perceive Elliot as being equally flawed because he’s white and alcoholism is a white person problem while crack addiction is a black-person problem. But he’s stacked the deck against Reggie too much: Yes, being a drunk would make you a very poor candidate as a parent, but given all the other factors — Elliot is doting, he is wealthy, he provides ample opportunities for Eloise, and he is actually present in her life — it’s difficult to gain any sympathy for Reggie, who is an unemployed crack addict who was recently released from prison, can’t even spell his own daughter’s name, and has no real interest in being a parent whatsoever (he’s only involved at the behest of Rowena).
But, Elliot called Reggie a “street ni**er” for knocking up his teenage daughter and running away after she died, and therefore, the audiences’ alliances are apparently supposed to shift to the crack addict. Or at least, we’re supposed to believe that the black judge in the case would so blinded by loyalty to her race that she’d be inclined to favor the natural father over the grandfather because the grandfather drinks heavily and used an offensive term, when in reality, giving custody to Reggie would be tantamount to giving Eloise to Child Protective Services.
There may have been a well-intentioned point buried somewhere deep beneath this mess about how our perceptions are shaped by the color of a person’s skin, but Mike Binder is clearly not the person who should be attempting to make this point, especially when he’s trying so hard to layer in other themes about the importance of heritage, the dangers of alcoholism, and a mother’s inability to see fault in her own child even when it’s staring her in the face (while literally holding a crack pipe).
And if all that weren’t bad enough, whatever earnest but offensively misguided point that Binder is trying to make is completely undone by a cop-out of an ending that refuses to extend its wretched point to its natural conclusion. Instead, it drops a moronic twist that allows Costner — who inexplicably was so passionate about this film that he financed much of it with his own money — to escape without having to address the dilemma created by the idiotic plot. In the end, Black or White is a shitpile of a movie that robs us even of the treacly, blunt-force feel-good ending we had expected and trades it in for cowardly, anti-climactic weak sauce that can’t even be bothered to follow through on its own dumbass message.