KEVIN COSTNER OCTAVIA SPENCER JILLIAN ESTELL ANTHONY MACKIE
black or white
Black or White attempts to explore race relations in a fairly light drama with comedic elements, but it still gets into serious issues. Among the serious subjects are white and black stereotypes, parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, and a taste of what happens when the legal profession gets involved in conflicts. Comedic elements are shown when two cultures collide (e.g., when the demonstrative black family wants to repeatedly hug the rather stiff white lawyer) and when the child Eloise (Estell) is on the scene. Her loving charm and bossiness with her lawyer grandpa always brings smiles.
Mike Binder, the writer/director has put together a reasonably good effort to talk about sensitive issues, breaking it up from time to time with a bit of laughter, but still showing how conflicts between people who are black and white can arise through misunderstandings, over-reaction, and lack of awareness about one’s underlying needs and motives. When Kevin Costner first read Binder’s script, he said, “It spoke to me.” And I think many audiences will experience the same reaction.
The story has to do with a sensitive subject right off the bat; Elliot (Costner) loses his wife suddenly, and is left to care for their granddaughter Eloise who has lived with them all her life. After the grandmother’s death, the child’s other grandmother, Rowena (Spencer)—who had worked out an amicable arrangement with Elliot’s wife—tries to get custody on the assumption that her son’s child—whom he has never seen—will be a reason for him to get his life in order. Not only that, she has a large extended family who could provide the child with a lot of love and companionship. She sees only the “blackness” in the child and thinks Eloise would be better off with “her own people”; whereas, of course, Elliot—despite being overwhelmed by suddenly having to take on the role of mother—thinks she should stay in the only home she has known. The case goes to court, and we are treated both to the hearing and to the back-stories that are going on behind the scene.
Spencer is a wonderful star who is a formidable presence in every scene she is in. She plays “Big Mama” to the host of family members who live with her (under her largesse) in two different houses. (She’s a real estate agent and has six businesses to run.) Costner is strong in what may be a comeback role for him, but unfortunately, his character’s serious drinking is so repellant, it’s hard for the audience to engage with him. The climax of the court case ends with an admirable monologue, giving him extra time, in a sense; whereas the Spencer character does not get that chance, so the film is likely to be criticized on that point (i.e., favoring the white point of view).
But taken as a whole, I think the tensions between the races and the serious-comedic sides of the story are balanced enough for the audience to be edified as well as entertained.
Let’s have some gray.
By Donna R. Copeland