Black or White review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In an attempt to stage a family drama of loss and custody with a racial coating, Black or White ends up becoming overblown in nearly every aspect of its sentimentality. Every sad moment is a cue for a montage with a soft soundtrack and every bitter confrontation breeds a brutal lashing of words. At the same time, the movie merely skirts the real provocative issues for a rather timid drama. It’s almost as if director Mike Binder could see the story going downhill into racial stereotypes and made a last-minute attempt to pull up. While the movie doesn’t exactly crash and burn, it still takes a lot of damage from a rather bloated story.
The story centers around the case for custody of Eloise (Jillian Estell), a plucky and smart little girl born from parents both black and white. Her mother died and her father Reggie (Andre Holland) is trying fruitlessly to clean up his crack addiction. She currently stays with her grandfather Elliot (Kevin Costner), a wealthy lawyer with a big house. But after Elliot’s wife passes, custody of Eloise comes back into question with Reggie’s sister Rowena (Octavia Spencer). Rowena doesn’t trust Elliot because he has a drinking problem. Elliot doesn’t trust Reggie because he has a crack problem. Thus the courtroom battle begins and eventually leads down the road of the white guy versus the black family.
There are some decent angles approached for this scenario, but never are any truly capitalized upon. When Elliot and Rowena form their courtroom strategies, the subject of race inevitably comes up. Rowena’s council of her hard-nosed lawyer brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) strongly suggests that this is the card they play. He calls out Reggie’s faults during a meeting in that he embodies the living stereotype of what black people strive to distance themselves from. It’s an engaging setup, but never fully developed off its base examination. There are several of these moments throughout the picture - playing up the racial distancing of fighting for a little girl - but only when it’s convenient for a scene and only to be swept under the rug for a rushed ending.
Busying up the rest of the picture are the dramatic stings of Elliot’s drinking and the comedic insertion of him trying to work with a tutor for Eloise. Elliot’s mourning of his wife leads to plenty of booze-fueled hallucinations where he cries towards her ghost for guidance. He continues to be an awkward mess throughout and yet he still has an intact moral compass for his granddaughter. This is due to Eloise being almost too understanding of his drinking problem. She’s smart enough to know when he is drunk, but not emotional enough to react towards his faults. She’s smart enough to do a lot of things on her own, but is kept too precious in the way she demands her grandfather discipline her. The only character more overly sweet than Eloise is her kindly math tutor - an African immigrant named Duvan. He is played up way too heavily for laughs as the obsessed scholar in that he has a term paper for everything and relies on learning languages as a pastime. All of this would be mildly amusing if it weren’t treated as sprinkles to a story that splits in several different directions.
What saves this sinking ship from exploding is an admirable cast doing their best with what little they’re given. Kevin Costner always tries so hard and this may be his finest role in at least a few years. Anthony Mackie perfectly embodies the race-focused lawyer and Octavia Spencer does her usual sass with more emotion than you’d expect. Bill Burr provides his usual dash of controversial comedy as Elliot’s brother/lawyer. Even little Jillian Estell does a fine job as the cute girl with a good heart and a greater mind. It’s just a shame they’re given such an amateur script to work with. It would be interesting to see how Eloise responds to her bi-racial roots in this whole battle, but she’s merely shoved to the side as a cute distraction from most of the drama.
While Black or White touches on some thought-provoking issues, it fumbles with trying to juggle them in a very unfocused plot. Areas which could be very telling of today’s current presentations of race and custody are either poorly presented or hardly presented at all. It’s a movie that should be more important than just another drama high on emotion and light on intelligence. Instead it chickens out with a mess of script that’s entirely reliant on the actors to hoist this picture out of the Lifetime movie doldrums.