Black or White Mike Binder
Published Jan 30, 2015If it wasn't such a maudlin and manipulative courtroom custody drama, it would almost be easy to mistake Black or White for a comedy. While better films manage to strike a delicate balance between the comic and the serious, here is one that shoehorns its laughs into the story with such inelegance that the tone vacillates so wildly between the two extremes — often even within the same scene — it can't help but come across as disingenuous.
Left to care for his young granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) after the death of his daughter and wife, all hotshot lawyer Elliot (Kevin Costner) can seem to do to cope is drink. We know this because he's pouring a drink at the start of almost every scene and then wobbling through life with slurred speech and a cloak of sadness perpetually hanging off him. It gets so bad that he eventually hires his granddaughter's overly ambitious tutor (standout Mpho Koaho) to drive him around.
The racial wrinkle here is that Eloise's father is black and his mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) seeks custody of her granddaughter. Represented in court by a partner at his law firm (Bill Burr), Elliot goes to trial to try and prove that he should remain her guardian.
Costner and Spencer are able to navigate all the shifts in tone admirably, but the lack of chemistry between Costner and his young co-star Estell keeps their relationship from ever being all that authentic. Things get even more problematic when Eloise's father (Andre Holland) comes back into the picture to seek custody himself, as his character seems to constantly change to fit the needs of the story. One minute he wants his daughter, the next he doesn't. He insists that he's no longer taking drugs, then he's caught openly smoking crack on a nearby front porch — twice.
Writer-director Mike Binder gave Costner one of his better recent roles in 2005 with The Upside of Anger, as an ex-ballplayer who bonded with a tightly wound Joan Allen over their shared love of alcohol. That film walked the same genre-defying tightrope, but was grounded in reality in a way that Black or White never demonstrates. Instead, events that are supposedly based on a true story have been transformed into easily digestible entertainment where you can practically hear the laugh track. It's a family crisis masquerading as a sitcom.