This latest film from writer-director Mike Binder (2007’s “Reign Over Me”) takes on two challenging and difficult subjects; a custody battle over a young girl and the resulting stereotypical race relations between the two families involved. Kevin Costner stars as Elliot Anderson, an affluent lawyer and grieving husband still dealing with the death of his wife, who now finds himself as the sole caretaker of his 7-year old biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). To make matters more interesting, director Binder interjects the opposing black grandmother (Octavia Spencer) from the girl’s other side of the family to contest Costner’s parental fitness to raise a young child all alone.
While “Black or White” admirably tries to break down prejudices and give the audience a sense of hope and togetherness by the movie’s end, it fails to properly set-up viewers and the storyline with sufficient bitterness and rage amongst the competing families—common ingredients in court battles and race relations. As faults are pointed out in others’ behavior, one’s own blind-spots develop and fester, but are hardly unacknowledged. This hypocrisy emerges as a common thread throughout the plot and re-enforces the oversimplification of the relationships. The one underlining fact the film does successfully drive home is that everyone has grief and problems—regardless of one’s age, gender, socioeconomic status and demographics.
Despite heartfelt and moving performances from Academy Award winners Costner and Spencer, “Black or White” never transpires into the on-screen dustup it promises in either the courtroom or on the streets of Los Angeles. During the time or two when things appear to get real with straight-talk from the heart or physical violence, Binder’s script backs off softly to take the easier, less believable path. The pulled punches in the story’s muted confrontations avoided the sense of hostility so often found in our society when discussing race and custody battles. This timid and weak pattern throughout the underwhelming film creates a contrived finale.
Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer.
The movie’s dismissive touch on the volatile stages of grief remains its biggest flaw. Likewise, a difficult, or unjust, judgment is never ordered from the Family Court. And the young Eloise is only lightly tugged in both family directions, while displaying little to no evidence of traumatic stress—in spite of finding herself at the epicenter of the custody fight.
The PG-13 rating for this movie, containing such highly toxic topics of race relations and child custody, does the film a disservice by taming the degree in which both can expounded upon. Only once does Costner’s role as Elliot actually push the level of tension in a scene to a more realistic, vile and vulnerable boiling point. However, rather than continue that undiluted, powerful dialogue and move the film’s frank discussions towards a winner and loser in the battle known as life, “Black or White” settles for gray and mediocrity. That impotence keeps any real, unfiltered developments and understanding between the sides from transpiring—leaving the audience with a tempered product. In the end, it’s the watered down plot–unwilling to push harder and deeper on the issues–that keeps this film from addressing the true stereotypes and hypocrisy found in all humans, regardless of race, gender or age.
“Black or White” is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 1 minute.
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