There are few hard-and-fast rules in screenwriting, but here’s one I think we can agree on: Something’s gone wrong if your crowd-pleasing family drama asks audiences to hope a child’s father proves to be a crackhead. That’s one baffling turn in Mike Binder’s Black or White, a movie about race in America that, for all its efforts at broad-minded truth-telling, can’t resist insisting its crotchety old white-guy hero is right about everything, even when he comes right out and calls the young black man who fathered his grandchild a “street nigger.”
Not since the last Dinesh D’Souza flick has a movie seemed so eager to tell us who are the good black people and who the bad ones. One black character upbraids another for coming across like what racist whites might think black folks are like: “You’re a goddamn cliché! A perfect stereotype!” lawyer Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) says to Reggie (André Holland), a sad-eyed addict and deadbeat dad. If only Reggie could respond, “Why aren’t you yelling at the writer-director who imagined me?”
Illustrating how weird this all gets demands we plow through a lot of plot. Here goes: A consummately rumpled Kevin Costner plays well-heeled, just-widowed power-lawyer Elliott, suddenly the primary caregiver for his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), a moppet so blessed in cutes/charisma that you feel, when you’re fortunate enough to regard her, something like what a cat must as it stretches out where the sun hits the floor.
Elliott’s daughter, now dead, conceived Eloise with Reggie, the onetime crack smoker who claims he’s gotten his life back together. He’s urged into pursuing custody of Eloise by his mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), who presses her brother Jeremiah into siccing his own law firm on the case. Elliott responds by marshaling the lawyers he works with — and the result is two hours of sleepy, hard-to-swallow legal wrangling that really could have used a polish from the Good Wife writers’ room.
The film is being promoted as a clash between Costner and Spencer, but we’re only treated to a couple of dustups between these outsized stars — and, after the initial confrontations, Binder’s script isn’t fair or clever enough to let them both be right. One exchange is as sharp as you might hope for. Spencer’s Rowena suggests that Elliott’s reluctance to bring Eloise around to South Central to visit her black relatives might have something to do with race.
“What is it with you?” Elliott snarls. “Why do you always have to go there?”
She replies, “What is it with you? You can’t admit there’s a there there!”
Those two lines offer more truth about race in America than the rest of the movie. Rather than participate in this difficult conversation, Elliott attacks the very idea that race is even worth talking about. Later, he complains again, almost admitting that his subject-changing is a stratagem: “Why do you always have to checkmate me with this shit?” he asks, as if the great injustice of American inequality is that he sometimes loses arguments. Too bad, then, that Binder never lets Rowena win another, writing her as a blinkered fool whose only motive for taking Eloise from Elliott seems to be the belief that black kids should only be raised in black homes. Almost as dispiriting: In court she yaps her every thought right at the judge, like she’s talking back on Maury.
Binder’s better at the brisk, affecting scenes of single parenting, with Costner and Estell aglow together. But there are too many shots of hard-drinking Elliott sneaking “Glencallan,” a whiskey made up for movies and TV shows, as well as some miserably flat comedy involving Mpho Koaho as an entrepreneurial-minded tutor from Africa, another goddamn cliché/perfect stereotype.
Binder’s attempts to humanize his black characters make them cartoons. The tutor mentions that his family was killed along with hundreds of others in his village, and the moment’s much too light, almost a joke, all about giving Elliott perspective on his problems. Something similar happens when Elliott visits Rowena’s home, where many generations of convivial relatives sit around having a grand old time — in the middle of the morning on a school day. If Binder wants to upend white expectations about life in south L.A., couldn’t he have conjured up some jobs?
The nadir comes by way of the ugly scenes between Elliott and Reggie. Holland plays Reggie with the tender desperation of a recovering addict: He’s tentative, secretive, a little shy, and only insistent when talking about how he’s doing better now. He hits Elliott up for money, implying that for a price he’ll drop the suit and go away, but this plays out like a ruse, like an attempt to prove to the family court that Elliott is unethical. Reggie’s a mess, and a disappointment to Eloise, but something’s off in the cruel way Elliott belittles him at every opportunity, insisting to Rowena’s face that her son is still a junkie who can’t ever be trusted. The movie’s coy about Reggie’s drug use, even after Elliott tosses that slur into his face, and even milks this for suspense: Is Elliott a pitiless racist? Or is this harrowed young man fooling his too-doting mother and still on the pipe? Since Elliott is, for all his flaws, a loving and committed caregiver, the guardian it’s clear Eloise should stay with, Binder is asking viewers to do the unconscionable: to root for the young black man to be the stereotype.
Occasionally, the film rouses into something thoughtful, even daring. Put on the stand in family court, Elliott is asked directly whether or not he is a racist. At first he evades, playing the victim again. But then he gives a long, honest, painful answer, one that Costner seems to tear out of himself, one rich in what that character feels is the truth. Moments like this, or Costner’s first fracas with Spencer, hint at the film we might have gotten if anyone else onscreen were given this chance: not to be good or bad, but to be a person speaking actual thoughts.
Written and directed by Mike Binder. Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Jennifer Ehle, André Holland, Gillian Jacobs, and Anthony Mackie.