Black or White may have more draw on your purse-strings than your heartstrings.

by Steve Pulaski

Black or White is the kind of film that captivates in the moment; while watching it, especially with an audience clearly invested in the film and its characters, you become wrapped up in its ideas and its presentation and often forget to acknowledge the glaring faults of the film that can run amok. It’s the kind of momentary captivation that warrants your attention, or lack thereof, just long enough to make you think twice and second guess your immediate opinions but not long enough to where you’re blind to the film’s trickery or generalizations for too long. It’s not until you’re walking out to your car and making the commute home do you think over the film and, in turn, rationalize emotions and begin to form concrete opinions on what you just saw.

Black or White
Written & Directed by
Mike Binder
Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Gillian Jacobs
Release Date
30 January 2015
Steve’s Grade: C-

What I just described has been the process I’ve been going through watching dramas, particularly ones that are evidently tugging at heartstrings or tackling key moral and ethical issues in society. Often times I find myself leaving the theater gearing up for a positive review, then go about my day, going off to work or working on other tasks that I realize initial thoughts would’ve warranted an incomplete or downright false, impulsive review. I’ve been careful to look at films like Black or White with a lens that magnifies every part of its being, from its characters, to its themes, to its sentimentality and assure the film’s long-term emotional impact, if any, is as potent as how it left me when it concluded.

Black or White concerns Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner), who we see in the first scenes of the film lose his wife in a car accident. Elliot has raised his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) since his daughter died in childbirth after being caught up with a petty drug-dealer and addict named Reggie (Andre Holland). Coping with grief, using excessive amounts of alcohol to numb his mind and his emotions, Elliot is facing backlash from Reggie’s mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer), also Eloise’s grandmother, who demands Eloise be cared for by her father’s family and, most importantly to her, people of her own color. Rowena hires her son Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) to represent her in a what turns out to be an ugly, racially-charged legal battle for the custody of Eloise, with Elliot’s drinking problem becoming more severe, as he is being assisted along by Eloise’s math tutor Duvan (Mpho Koaho) in driving and helping organize some sort of cogent system of coping with his troubles.

Black or White leaves no character without their own sort of ugly traits, Elliot’s being his alcoholism and his lack of ambition to change his ways, Rowena’s being her incessant nurturing of her son despite the harm he has caused to Elliot and his wife, Reggie’s being his past mistakes and his continued disinterest in making things right, and Jeremiah’s being his desire to exploit the racial aspect of this custody battle rather than centering it on the well-being of Eloise. Writer/director Mike Binder does an admirable job at humanely illustrating the film’s characters, however, not particularly granting the black characters with a great deal of redemption. While Elliot’s alcoholism is a huge burden, repeated emphasis on his desire to clean up his act is duly noted, while the black characters of the film are painted as irredeemable from the start, significantly throwing off the film’s idea of redemption.

In addition, Black or White conjures up the sentimentality of a Hallmark card, repeatedly focusing on trite and aggravating sentimentality over character dialog. Black or White loves to emphasize the impact certain scenes have on characters, case in point, when Reggie is planning on seeing his daughter for the first time in years at a dinner at Elliot’s home, by utilizing obvious orchestrations and tearjerking atmospheres rather than authentic emotional leverage.

Combine these two elements, and the overall conventionality of the film’s courtroom scenes, which are somewhat squandered by the film’s theatricalities in the way of the characters’ behavior, and you have a film that is disappointing on many fronts. However, the film gets by in a quiet sense by the strength of its cast, particularly Costner and Spencer, who bring a certain level of believability to the screenplay despite its emotional tropes and frustrating patronization of its black characters. This is the kind of film that hints itself being a prequel to more mainstream films that will recognize race and (finally) interracial relationships on screen, which makes it frustrating to note that in order to voice our desire and hunger to see more of such, we kind of have to pay to see a film that is below average in many respects.