Directed by: Mike Binder
Premise: A white widower (Kevin Costner) has his custody of his biracial granddaughter challenged by her black grandmother (Octavia Spencer).
What Works: Black or White dramatizes a racially charged custody battle between a white grandfather and a black grandmother. The film works to the extent that it does largely because it possesses characters who are nuanced and complex. Kevin Costner plays a grandfather who has recently lost his wife and must raise his granddaughter alone, since the mother of the child died while giving birth and the father is a drug addict. The older man has made a comfortable life for himself through a law practice but his anger at the loss of his wife and daughter has led him to become a functional alcoholic, an aspect of the role that Costner does very well. He suffers from some fundamental racism in his character but the grandfather isn’t some simplistic hate monger either and the love he shows for his biracial granddaughter offsets the impatience that he has for her extended family. Octavia Spencer is cast as the grandmother and Spencer also gives a nuanced performance. The audience gradually comes to see why she is so adamant about her granddaughter living with her; it begins as a matter of racial integrity but as more is revealed about her family it is clear that she hopes the presence of her granddaughter will bring the girl’s drug addicted father back into the fold. Black or White also features some notable supporting performances. Paula Newsome is cast as the judge overseeing the custody hearing and Newsome has much more presence in the courtroom than a lot of judge characters in legal dramas. Andre Holland plays the drug addicted father and although Holland does not get a lot of screen time he is able to elicit a wide range of reactions from the audience. Comic relief is provided by Mpho Koaho as a math and piano tutor who is a witness to the family struggle. Black or White’s distinct characters complement a story that is interested in the nuances of race relations. The case is more than a matter of black versus white; issues of class and gender also figure into the drama as do the double standards by which we judge character flaws in people of different backgrounds.
What Doesn’t: The irony of Black or White is that the child is lost in all of this. Played by Jillian Estell, the granddaughter is treated as an afterthought both by the court and by the filmmakers. It never occurs to anyone to ask the child what she wants and the legal argument over her custody never really addresses what is in her best interest. That in itself wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the filmmakers were aware of it but they too lose track of her in the story. The child is kept on the periphery of the action, like a trophy to be fought over, and the little girl’s scenes aren’t well executed. She is the one major character who does not come across as an authentic human being. A lot of her scenes come across as false, especially the moments that are intended to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. The granddaughter is either too deliberately cute or too precocious and her key scenes are staged in a calculated way, like the emotional beats of a television commercial. Black or White tends toward sentimentality in places and the filmmakers spoil a lot of the good will that they accrue throughout the movie in the film’s lousy ending. The conclusion of Black or White is a cop out, a wishy-washy resolution that does not really resolve anything and it is inconsistent with the tensions that exist between these characters. It’s a disappointingly simplistic ending to what is a generally thoughtful movie.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of Black or White try to have it both ways; the film has complicated characters in an overly simplistic story. Black or White is acceptable as a feel good movie but the optimism is forced.
Episode: #528 (February 8, 2015)