Overview: The maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother of a bi-racial child find themselves in a complex custody battle after a series of tragedies. 2015; Relativity Media; PG-13; 121 Minutes.
The Set-up: Given the current cultural climate, Kevin Costner’s history of seeking white knight roles, and the synopsis and title of this film, it was difficult to walk into Black or White expecting a comfortable and necessary movie experience. Released just days after New York magazine journalist Jonathan Chait was taken to task by social media and both right and left wing journalists for his assessment of the contemporary brand of liberal-policed political correctness, Mike Binder’s racially concerned domestic drama moved into the theaters with the same cringe-worthy awkwardness of grandma taking to Facebook to share her thoughts on Ferguson.
In the Gray: To the film’s credit, what stands out most is the likability and sincerity of the central characters. As opposing grandparents Elliot Anderson and Rowena Jeffers, Costner and Octavia Spencer are heartfelt and sympathetic. The movie earns your emotional involvement. Audiences will actively hope for things to work out for the best for these characters but the movie never cheapens itself by defining that conclusion beforehand. When it aims to be, the film is actually laugh-loud-funny, and, when it needs to be, it’s also sort of touching. As a movie about two good people trying to do what’s best for their remaining family while simultaneously coming to terms with the unfortunate-to-tragic destinies of other loved ones, this film is a success. If only it had curbed its ambitions.
An Identity Crisis: Until a climactic witness stand speech, in which a rich white man defines the terms under which race should be considered, only about half a dozen exchanges of racial concern are offered, and most of those by supporting characters. If Binder weren’t the only credited writer and Costner weren’t the top-billed producer of the film, I might wonder if these lines were shoehorned into the script by a studio-requested rewrite or, even worse, if any supporting dialogue was removed at the studio’s request. In its final form, Black or White never seems eager to explore the concerns demanded by its misappropriated title. Thus, when race is introduced through dialogue, it feels clumsy and forced, an improvised juggling act by a child wearing heavy gloves. Granted, in the narrative set-up, the racial make-up of the characters locked in this legal battle would still necessitate the consideration of the role of race in the relationships and ruling, and the subtext still leaves much to trouble over: namely, the film’s quickness to explain the difference between good and bad black people. But if the film (under a different title) had remained mute on the topic of race, at least there would have been plausible deniability.