Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Movie Review: Black or White

Black or White
Directed by: Mike Binder.
Written by: Mike Binder.
Starring: Kevin Costner (Elliot Anderson), Octavia Spencer (Rowena Jeffers), Jillian Estell (Eloise Anderson), Bill Burr (Rick Reynolds), Mpho Koaho (Duvan Araga), Anthony Mackie (Jeremiah Jeffers), André Holland (Reggie Davis), Gillian Jacobs (Fay), Jennifer Ehle (Carol), Paula Newsome (Judge Cummins).

A few decades ago, Black or White may have seemed like a rather daring look at race relations in America. Unfortunately, this isn’t the 1980s anymore, so now Mike Binder’s film simply seems dated. It is a well-intentioned movie to be sure – with some fine performances. It is a film that tries very hard to be relevant to the state of race relations in America today – but is so far removed from what is really going on right now that the whole thing seems misguided at best. I wanted Black or White to be a better movie – because there are some things in the movie that work quite well.

The film stars Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson – a rich lawyer, living in the posh area of Los Angeles. His teenage daughter died in childbirth with her mixed race child – Eloise (Jillian Estell). Elliot and his wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle), have been raising her ever since – since Eloise`s father, Reggie (Andre Holland) is a drug addict and petty criminal who has no interest in raising his own daughter. The movie opens in the hospital, where Elliot finds out that Carol has been killed in a car accident. This means Elliot now has to raise Eloise on his own. Or does it? Eloise`s other grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer) didn’t have a problem with the Andersons raising Eloise when Carol was around – but she knows Elliot is an alcoholic, and doesn’t trust him to raise her by himself. While Rowena lives in South Central L.A. – she is a success. She runs several businesses, owns several homes, and has a large family all of whom, except Reggie, seem to be on the right path. Her younger brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) is a high powered lawyer – and she decides to sue for custody from Elliot – but only after he refuses to joint custody. He wants Eloise right where she is – and to be fair, Eloise seems to want that as well, no matter how much she loves her grandma.

So, the whole thing sets itself as a courtroom drama – which isn’t overly surprising. Hollywood has a history of turning complicated issues like this into a genre they understand – and courtroom dramas also give the actors the opportunity to deliver long speeches, and have dramatic reveals on the stand that makes everyone gasp in surprise. All of this happens in Black or White, of course. Some of these scenes in court are awkward to say the least – but some of them work. One of the best performances in the movie is actually by Paula Newsome as the no-nonsense judge. When Elliot’s law partners first tell him that have a `black lady judge` they think they are screwed – but she defies stereotypes in the way she oversees the case. Unfortunately, she is perhaps the only character who does defy stereotypes in the movie – try as writer-director Mike Binder may to ensure that everyone defies them.

There are parts of Black or White that work quite well. Kevin Costner delivers another fine performance as Elliot – a man drowning in grief and alcohol, who can never admit he actually has a problem (or that his problem is similar to Reggie’s – something the movie conveys visually, by putting them in the same frame indulging in their vices). Costner has gotten to be a better actor with time – after his misguided efforts in the 1990s where Hollywood mistook him for a movie star, when really he`s more of a natural character actor. Elliot means well – and genuinely doesn’t believe he’s prejudiced, but the movie shows otherwise. Octavia Spencer has a more difficult role – the movie bends over backwards to paint her as almost too perfect – except for the blind spot she has for her son. Still she does an excellent job with the role.

The movie itself though isn’t up to these performances. It tries way too hard to be relevant, to give every side a speech that seems at least a little reasonable, to give everyone flaws. The film gets many of the smaller moments right, but it drops the ball in most of the big ones. Costner delivers his big speech in court well – but it’s a misguided speech, at the wrong time, and I have a tough time believing it would have the impact it would. Andre Holland tries very hard with his role of Reggie – but his character changes in pretty much every scene depending on what the plot needs of him – he isn’t a character, so much as a plot device.

The movie is well intentioned – it genuinely has its heart in the right place, and wants to examine race – still a very relevant factor in America – in an interesting way. It doesn’t succeed in doing that however. I admire the effort, but didn’t care for the result.  

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