Review: Black or White
This review originally ran with our 2014 TIFF coverage
REVIEW: There was a moment at the TIFF screening of BLACK OR WHITE that I attended that really drove home the message Mike Binder/Kevin Costner's film was trying to deliver about race. Costner is called upon to testify about the prospect of the father of his grandchild obtaining custody of his daughter where he lists a laundry list of the man's faults. He explains that he's a crack addict, that as a twenty-three year old he impregnated Costner's seventeen year old daughter, that he's never been there for his kid, that he can't even spell her name, and so on, but he ends the speech by, in a moment of weakness, tearfully calling him a black bastard. It's supposed to be a sobering moment that proves that despite being an essentially good man he's not without prejudice. At the screening, a funny thing happened as up to those faithful last two words, Costner's speech was being presented as a rousing moment of truth, not unlike the kind of impassioned speeches he gave in movies like JFK. But when he said black bastard you know what happened? A couple of people applauded. In 2014. Now let that sit with you awhile.
So, the fact that BLACK AND WHITE raises touchy issues like this makes it easier to forgive its many imperfections. Very much along the lines of CRASH, in that it tries to reveal the subtext of racism among the white, ostensibly enlightened upper-class, it can't be denied that director Mike Binder has made an affecting film. Costner is excellent as a successful lawyer, now raising his biracial grand-daughter on his own. While he loves her unconditionally, he harbours a huge reserve of rage towards her deadbeat dad, who he blames for his daughter's accidental death, as well as his doting mother, played by Octavia Spencer.
Given the premise, you might think the idea of who the girl should live with is simple, but while initially you're firmly on Costner's side, Spencer's own perspective starts to feel relatively reasonable. She's portrayed as an almost saintly woman, who runs several businesses and supports a large extended family, which is so idealized they make The Brady Bunch look like the Manson Family. She does have a huge blind spot as far as her son goes, and Spencer does indeed becoming exasperating as a character, to the point that she quickly alienates the black female judge hearing the case.
Costner and Spencer's dynamic is interesting, with them never really warming to each other, but still respecting the fact that they each have the child's best interests at heart, another reason you're never quite sure who the child should go with. Even her deadbeat dad is somewhat sympathetic, and far from a villain.
However, BLACK OR WHITE is concerned with way more than just being a KRAMER VS KRAMER style custody drama, with the chief concern being how prejudice infects even the most open-minded of us, and is a two-way street, with Spencer herself resenting Costner's privileged white male on a racial level. One of the most interesting characters is Anthony Mackie as Spencer's high-powered attorney brother, who represents her in court. He open admits to taking on the case as a way to expose a man he thinks is a racist. Mackie plays him as a reasonable, intelligent guy who's far from a villain himself, and actually takes every opportunity he can to dress down Spencer's son, who he views as a walking stereotype, and exceedingly harmful to his community.
That said, BLACK OR WHITE does have its share of issues, some of which are more serious than others. For one thing, it's far from subtle, and pretty much bashes you over the head with things that are obvious, such as the juxtaposition of functioning alcoholic Costner drinking and a crack head toking up. It also gets pretty mawkish, to the degree that many people will be turned off right from the get-go, although it will certainly play well with an older audience (my parents will love this). As imperfect as it is, I can't deny that BLACK OR WHITE worked for me, as have Binder's other films, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER and REIGN OVER ME. He doesn't make perfect films, but he makes affecting ones, and Costner's performance is one of his best-ever.