As the title suggests, Mike Binder’s melodrama-with-an-agenda confronts our culture’s intensifying polarization and blind insistence on the either/or fallacy that ends all dialogue. Despite the best of intentions, a career-best performance from Kevin Costner, and outstanding work by Octavia Spencer and child actor Jillian Estell, “Black or White” succumbs to some of the same stereotypes it tries to dispel.
The film opens in a dim, dismal hospital corridor with Elliott (Costner, affecting a latter-day Clint Eastwood growl) experiencing what he will later describe as “the worst day of his life.” A bouquet of flowers left on the floor adds a note of pathos to the scene as he tells someone on the phone the bad news: His wife has died.
That’s pretty much the last moment of subtlety in the film, and just the beginning of Elliott’s problems. He suffers this new loss while still grieving for his daughter, who died giving birth at the age of 17. With his wife gone, Elliott must raise by himself his now 10-year-old biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). Further complicating matters, Eloise’s strong-willed African-American grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), insists that she be allowed custody of Eloise so that the child can be raised in her big, lively, extended family house in South Central, among her “own people.”
The idea does not sit well with Elliott. A well-to-do member of a white-shoe law firm, he’s still furious about the behavior of Eloise’s father, Reggie (Andre Holland), a ne’er-do-well crack addict who knocked up Elliott’s daughter and then abandoned her. Elliott’s response to his Job-like woes? He polishes off a bottle of Macallan’s, and in almost every scene thereafter he’s got a glass in hand. . . . Enough already. We get it. He drinks.
Rowena, meanwhile, has enlisted a lawyer. A good one — her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie). He assembles the colleagues in his firm to outline their strategy. They will argue that Elliott is depriving Eloise of her identity as an African-American, implying — if not claiming — that Elliott is a racist. So it comes down to a question of black or white — with Eloise’s own feelings on the matter not really being a factor.
At first Binder exploits this premise for some shrewd — if heavy-handed — insights. Elliott berates Reggie as a crack-head, then stumbles off to freshen his drink. It’s the pot calling the kettle an addict — an example of white people projecting their worst tendencies onto black people, the alien Other. And when Jeremiah rationalizes Reggie’s behavior as the result of racism, he attempts to blame the system and denies individual responsibility.
But even Jeremiah has had enough of Reggie’s dissolution. “You’re a walking stereotype!” he exclaims in disgust. Then again, so is Jeremiah. Making him just a brilliant lawyer is not enough for Binder — he also has piles of advanced degrees in assorted fields. Not to be outdone, Duvan (Mpho Koaho), Eloise’s math tutor, speaks nine languages fluently and has mastered as many disciplines. A running joke is Duvan using any occasion as an excuse to pull out his résumé or a scholarly paper he has written on some apropos topic.
They are examples of what Spike Lee has termed the “magical negro” — the African-American stock character whose superlative qualities merely underscore the prevalence of negative clichés like Reggie. It seems that for black people in this movie, character itself is a matter of black or white.
Watch the trailer here: