Black or White is a film that tackles the subject of biracial identity through the lens of a hard-drinking, tortured white lawyer and a spirited, self-made black entrepreneur, played by Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer. Despite Costner’s strong performance and a film intended to explore a complicated matter, director Mike Binder holds fast to narrative conventions, creating a melodramatic film that merely scratches the surface of what happens when two very different worlds collide.
Costner plays the role of Elliott Anderson, a highly successful Los Angeles attorney who is left alone to raise his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), after a tragic series of events. Elliott finds solace in the bottom of a liquor bottle while trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered home life. During his bereavement, Elliott enlists the help of Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho), a brilliant, hardworking African “tutor” to help Eloise and him with math and other subjects. Eloise is like most kids in Hollywood films: cute, wise and the actual adult in the household as her white grandfather spirals out of control.
Enter Rowena Jeffers (Spencer), the child’s black grandmother, who is the mother to all the children in her family and, of course, wants to add Eloise to the Compton, Calif., brood. Eloise’s father, Reggie (André Holland), is a recovering addict who, like this film, is well-intentioned but who falls short every time it matters in the life of Eloise and his mother and is brought into the mix despite the counsel of Rowena’s brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Anthony Mackie). Jeremiah is a powerful attorney who has escaped his working-class roots and is willing to capitalize on his cultural and professional capital to bring Eloise “home” despite his disdain for Reggie.
This film has the makings of a powerhouse production, but it wades into too familiar territory, subverting the powerful story that the film could tell. Binder’s attempt at a contemporary or progressive look at race relations in society is undermined by his use of racial stereotypes in the film. Duvan, the tutor, literally becomes a manservant in his quest to protect Elliott from his demons. Rowena wants to give the world, and everyone in it, a great, big collective hug, while spouting off sassy verbiage as she demands that her damaged son “be a man” and that Elliott allow her into his life. Reggie is quite possibly one of the weakest and most callous brothers seen in recent film history as a drug-addicted beggar who is too selfish to care about the needs of the child he created. Elliott is a white man who has rage and hatred in his heart for blacks, except for his grandchild, who he doesn’t want to believe is black.
Anyone who has dealt with the issue of biracial identity and familial relations knows that it doesn’t take all of this stereotyping to create conflict. A black man from Compton getting a white woman from what looks like Brentwood pregnant and then going on with his life (college, military, etc.) while the grandparents attempt to raise a child who needs both of them is plenty with which to work. It’s difficult to watch Spencer, who is typecast in this role, move through scenes like Minny from The Help, especially if you have witnessed her understated yet powerful performance in Fruitvale Station, which could have worked here.
Reggie as a crackhead; Rowena as a loudmouthed mother figure with a gang of kids who sit around and literally do nothing but chill all day; a completely silent Latina maid (she literally has no lines); and a raging, alcoholic white man is just a little too black-and-white for a film that is exploring progressive themes of racial identity.
What does work in the film is Binder’s ability to show that we are more alike than different. Elliott and Rowena are both hardworking and self-determined and want Eloise to be happy. They both want to make sure that they matter in the story of her life. It is possible to peacefully coexist when what matters most is privileged: love for a child.
Despite the flaws in the characterizations, the overall film is well-done in terms of production values and style. Black or White is worth seeing because it raises important questions about raising multiracial children in a society that is admittedly changing, yet still wedded to strict ways of thinking about race. This film is a good starting point for that much-needed conversation.
Black or White will be in theaters Friday.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.