‘Black or White’ reveals shades of gray

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“Black and White” is a drama, which addresses the racial divide in our country and how it impacts one seven-year old biracial child.

Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) is a Los Angeles  corporate attorney, who has recently lost his wife in a car accident. Elliot and his wife had been lovingly raising their mixed race granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell).

Their 17-year old daughter, Carole, had become impregnated by Reggie (Andre Holland), a 23-year old African-American crack addict from a rough part of town. Carole died during childbirth as a result of a congenital cardiac defect.

Reggie was a high school dropout, who had been repeatedly busted for possession and distribution. Although Reggie had hailed from a good family, he had devolved into the worst stereotype that some whites harbor of black males as shiftless reprobates. He is chronically unemployed, strung out on drugs, and makes babies that he doesn’t take care of.

Consumed with bitterness, Elliot blames Reggie for his daughter’s tragic death. Reggie was after all guilty of statutory rape. Elliot is also revolted by the fact that Reggie proves to be such a negligent father to Eloise. Reggie isn’t even present at Eloise’s birth. He doesn’t meet his daughter until she has already turned two. His principal reason for showing up at the Anderson household isn’t to spend time with his motherless daughter. Reggie simply wants to wheedle some cash out of his affluent father-in-law. Elliot recognizes what a strung out mess Reggie is. He gives him money to stay away from Eloise. While visiting, Reggie steals one of Elliot’s wrist watches.

Despite some of his Elliot’s casual prejudices against people of color, it is obvious that he genuinely loves his biracial granddaughter. She is his blood. With his daughter and wife now dead, Eloise represents the only emotional touchstone remaining in his life. However, an early scene shows him ineptly trying to comb out Eloise’s hair.  This white male doesn’t have a clue how to do it.

Elliot can offer Eloise the benefits of financial privilege and sends her to an exclusive private school. How does this stack up against the mitigating virtues of living with Rowena (Octavia Spencer from “The Help”), Eloise’s paternal grandmother? Wouldn’t Eloise benefit from some female and African American influences in her life? Wouldn’t she draw comfort from the embrace of a multi-generational, extended family?

That’s certainly what Rowena thinks. She reasons that no matter how much of a bum Reggie might be, Eloise should be allowed to know her father’s family. Besides, even though her son is a drug addict, Elliot isn’t much better. He is a dysfunctional alcoholic. With his wife recently deceased, he is becoming progressively worse in his drinking. Elliot even gets buzzed in front of his impressionable granddaughter, much to her chagrin.

When Elliot studiously ignores Rowena’s telephone calls, she becomes understandably irate. Rowena’s brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) just happens to head a law firm and be a formidable litigator. When Elliot and Rowena can’t resolve the issue of custody amicably, it’s off to the court. The scenes in the courtroom exude dramatic tension. However, they are plagued by unrealistic lapses in which witnesses are allowed to give speeches about social issues. At several junctures, Rowena interrupts the trial to interject an impassioned tirade, even though she isn’t on the witness stand.

Ostensibly inspired by a true story, “Black and White” is written and directed by Mike Binder (“Reign Over Me,” “The Other Side of Anger” also with Costner). The introductory scene takes place in the hospital after Elliot’s wife has just died. It does a poor job of illuminating what has recently transpired. Binder’s use of magical realism is clumsy and confusing. This is particularly true in a poolside scene, which takes place near the end of the film.

“Black and White” has some inexplicable conceptual flaws in its narrative. For instance, where was Rowena during the first seven years of Eloise’s life? Are we to accept the implausible notion that this family-oriented matriarch was disinterested in her granddaughter, who lived just across town?  Did she wake up one morning and abruptly recognize the importance of Eloise being exposed to her black roots?

In his role as director, Binder elicits strong performances from his cast. The acting, particularly the delivery of the well-scripted dialogue, redeems some of the overt flaws in the film’s narrative. Newcomer, Jillian Estell, is adorable, yet never becomes cloyingly sweet. Full of emotional warmth, Octavia Spencer delivers another bravura, Oscar-worthy supporting performance. In smaller roles, Anthony Mackie and Andre Holland both bring nuance to their characters. Even the sometimes stiff Kevin Costner (who also wears a co-producers hat) is well cast here.

Intermittently, cinematographer, Russ T. Alsobrook (comedies “Superbad,” Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), provides a shot, which is beautiful to behold. A scene of Eloise sitting on her grandpa’s lap with her head to his chest as he reads her a bed time story is profoundly touching. Later, an overhead shot of Rowena’s extended family swimming in Elliot’s pool is stunning. Besides it visual merit, the perspective forces the viewer to recognize that other than Eloise, it is probably the first time that a person of color has graced Elliot’s pool.  Another shot captures the Los Angles skyline in an evocative fashion.

Black and white are often invoked iconographically to represent two polar opposites. “Black or White” is an effective reminder that life consists of muted shades of gray.

PG-13 (for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight) 121 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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