“Black or White” is inspired by true events and stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, a successful lawyer who works and lives in an affluent areas of Los Angeles. We learn in the opening scenes that his wife has just died in a car accident. The couple had custody of their young, African American granddaughter Eloise (played by Jillian Estell) because her mother, their daughter, died while giving birth to Eloise when she was only 17. The girl’s father, a drug addict and criminal, was in and out of prison and not in the picture. He is also black.
The following day Elliot, who’s been treating years of pain with excessive alcohol use, shares the news of the death with Eloise after school. It’s a nicely executed, heartbreaking scene.
Shortly after the services, Elliot learns that Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) has decided to seek full custody of Eloise, and bring her to Compton to live with her extensive family. She feels the girl needs the love of her relatives and to be exposed to the black culture and community, which she’s not getting now. Elliot won’t give-up his granddaughter and Eloise wants to stay with him. So the battle for custody of this little girl is on, with race playing a major role in the strategies used by both sides.
Anthony Mackie gives a career-best performance as Rowena’s brother, Jeremiah, an accomplished lawyer who will represent her side in court. He’s determined to make this case all about Black vs. White, painting Elliot as a racist. Rowena reluctantly gives-in to this strategy since it may be the best way for them to win custody. And the fight for Eloise gets ugly, portrayed through a series of incidents, confrontations and courtroom scenes. And Eloise’s father returns, complicating things even more.
“Black or White” deals with more tricky, hot-topic issues than it can handle, including death, child custody, substance abuse, and most of all racial tension. You’d think this would mean that it’s a straightforward drama. But writer/director Mike Binder (whose last film was the 2007 Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle drama “Reign Over Me”) mixes in a surprising amount of light material, including an upbeat compilation of music, a goofy girlfriend of Elliot’s lawyer partner, and an over-the-top math tutor hired by Elliot to help his granddaughter. Each of these is constantly interrupting the dramatic tension and flow of the main narrative.
The result is an uneven film in both story and tone, with the positives slightly outweighing the negatives. Costner is excellent in several showcase scenes, and Spencer is solid as a proud woman with a good heart who’s blinded by the love for her family. Andre Holland (“42”, “Selma”) dominates the screen time in the film’s second half as Eloise’s biological father, who says he’s trying to clean up his act, but is losing that fight. This subplot gets a little too much attention.
While watching “Black or White”, I was thinking back to the classic child custody film, “Kramer vs. Kramer”. What made that 1979 Best Picture winner truly work was the relationship between Dustin Hoffman’s Ted and his son Billy. The courtroom scenes did not dominate the film, or take away from the father-son story. It’s the exact opposite in “Black or White”, as the focus becomes more legal and less emotional as the film progresses.
At times, “Black or White” is quite effective, moving, and daring in dealing with its controversial topics. However, Binder just as often plays it safe, getting both heavy-handed and light in sections that just didn’t need either. If handled better, this could’ve been a very powerful movie. Instead, it falls short of being both a gripping film and a fresh commentary on race relations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Black or White” gets a disappointing C+.
Running Time: 121 min.