Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Black Or White”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Black Or White”, the new drama starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer.


When a recently widowed lawyer is forced to care for his parentless mulatto granddaughter, he winds up in a custody battle with the girl’s paternal grandmother – but when certain dark aspects of his background surface, will he be able to convince the court he deserves to retain custody or lose his granddaughter forever?


Elliot (Costner) is devastated when he learns of his wife’s death as the result of a traffic accident; for years, they took care of their mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) after the little girl’s mother died in childbirth and her drug addict father disappeared.  Now that he’s alone, however, Elliot is feeling the pressure of having to care for Eloise by himself – so much so, in fact, that he’s taken to self-medicate with mega-drams of Scotch.  This is where Rowena (Spencer) steps in; as the mother of Reggie (André Holland) – Eloise’s biological father – she wants to share custody of the little girl so Eloise can learn of her heritage and familiarize herself with the rest of her family.

Facing considerable resistance from Elliot, Rowena engages her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a lawyer determined to prove Elliot is unfit to care for Eloise all by himself.  Seeing an ugly court battle is about to ensue, Elliot, a high-powered attorney himself, has his most trusted associates represent him.  It is at this point the prodigal Reggie suddenly chooses to make his return; maintaining that he’s in recovery for his years of drug abuse, Reggie insists that he’s clean now and perfectly capable of taking care of Eloise.

As time drags on, both sides start building up a case against each other; Elliot begins to doubt whether he’ll be able to devote as much time to Eloise as his wife did and Jeremiah warns Rowena that having Reggie involved may damage her legal case.  Reggie then proposes an offer to Elliot – pay him off and he’ll go away forever.  Although Elliot is appalled at Reggie’s attempt at a bribe, he sees it as an easy way out and writes Reggie a sizable check.  Later on, however, Reggie has second thoughts – after meeting Eloise, he now decides that he wants custody.  But when Reggie physically confronts Elliot, can he prevent Reggie from taking Eloise or will he ultimately lose her to Reggie in court anyway?


In the months after the racially-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York that caused protest marches from coast to coast, there is a distinct need for a positive message of healing throughout the entire nation.  “Black Or White”, however, comes nowhere close to being that message of healing.  This obscenely preposterous movie does very little to move the conversation forward; it is merely another assertion of “if you’re white, you must be right”.  Despite a very cute little girl playing the part of Eloise, there’s precious little that makes “Black Or White” worth recommending. 

The cartoon stereotypes like the rich white guy and the sassy black woman grow tiresome even before the film gets underway.  Also the fact that the filmmaker tries to show the hypocrisy of  the alcoholic Elliot denouncing the irresponsible behavior of Reggie The Crackhead is so heavy-handed that it is simply groan-inducing.  Top it off with cringe-worthy illogical behavior exhibited by the characters and you have “Black Or White” being the feel-bad (or feel-irritated) movie of the year – and to think, it’s only January. 

What prevents “Black Or White” from being merely a television movie shown on the Lifetime network or something similar is the casting; the fact that they were able to score both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer lent the film a considerable amount of gravitas – yet not nearly enough to truly take it seriously.  The jokes with the hit-you-over-the-head obvious punchlines don’t help much, either.  If Costner chose to do this motion picture solely because he felt desperately in need of a hit after a bit of a drought, he’ll likely come up empty yet again. 

Black or White (2014) on IMDb

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