“Most of the people who say they want to start a conversation on race,” writer/director Mike Binder implies in his new drama, “Black or White,” “are really only interested in perpetuating a narrative.”
Which makes two-time Oscar winner Kevin Costner brave for taking the lead as an affluent lawyer battling an inner-city woman (“The Help’s” Octavia Spencer) for custody of his dead daughter’s biracial child Eloise (Jillian Estell) whom he and his wife had been caring for.
Costner’s Elliot Anderson navigates the dangerous third rail of race with the grace of Baryshnikov, though it is the actor’s trademark sincerity and integrity that instantiate the character.
The death of Elliot’s wife forces him to rear the child on his own. He learns, comically (or poignantly, depending on your paradigm), to brush her magnificent mass of hair; take her to school … anything necessary to keep her world as stable as possible … and then some. When she falters in class, for instance, Elliot hires a tutor (a charming African immigrant whose observations both entertain and contribute to the overall message).
Meanwhile, Spencer’s grandmother Rowena, something of an entrepreneur herself, uses Elliot’s wife’s death as an opportunity to swoop in and claim custody on behalf of her ne’er-do-well son who is Eloise’s absent father. There’s some courtroom drama, but more constructive deliberation occurs on porches and in backyards as “conversations” should.
Costner’s a boozer and Rowena is pushy, horning her way into both Elliot’s and Eloise’s lives. Nothing original there; nor is the ending, which is foreseeable. The treat is the journey that gets them to that point.
Unlike major releases like “12 Years a Slave” or the recent “Selma,” whose storylines are clearly black and white, this one wades in the subjective. Relationships are nuanced. Battle lines are drawn with essentially decent people on both sides. Lasting solutions are forged through communication and not litigation or even legislation.
Alas, “Black or White” is not a great film, or even a tremendously entertaining one (see sidebar for better Costner binge-watching) but it is earnest and takes an honest look at a delicate subject.