A movie review of “Black or White”: Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner star in this melodrama about child custody and cultural perceptions of “blackness” and “the race card.” Star rating: 3 stars out of 4.
“Selma” wasn’t the only film about race to get short shrift from Oscar voters this past year. “Black or White” is a frank, touching and very well-acted melodrama about child custody and cultural perceptions of “blackness” and “the race card.” It could have earned Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner fresh Oscar nominations.
Mike “The Upside of Anger” Binder’s latest teaming with Costner has more anger, mixed with alcoholism and a bitterness that may mask racism.
Elliot Anderson (Costner) tells his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), “We had a bad night last night.” Turns out, the girl’s grandmother died.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Black or White,’ with Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Anthony Mackie. Written and directed by Mike Binder. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight. Several theaters.
A couple of days pass, with granddad drinking and driving Eloise to school and stumbling through tying a ribbon in her hair. She needs him to ease off the sauce, to be tough with her, the way grandma was. He needs to remember to make her brush her teeth.
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“Say it like you MEAN it,” the 7-year-old pleads.
Eloise is of mixed race. Her mom died in childbirth and her African-American dad isn’t in the picture. But those phone messages Elliot is ignoring? Not returning them is going to cost him.
Paternal grandma Rowena (she goes by “Wee Wee”) wants to see her grandchild. Elliot’s kept them apart, and his reassurances of “Come by any time you like” aren’t sincere. Wee Wee (Spencer) has a brother (Anthony Mackie) who is, like Elliot, a high-powered corporate attorney. The custody fight to come will be about “support, community, history.” She doesn’t think her not-quite-in-law is raising the kid “black” enough.
“She’s NOT black!” he counters. “She’s HALF black!”
The script sets us up to buy into stereotypes, then flips those on their head. The rich suburbanite isn’t some cross-burner, though we start to wonder. And Wee Wee may live in South Central Los Angeles with a vast brood of kids and grandkids surrounding her, but she’s a successful entrepreneur.
Maybe it plays it too safe, and Costner, an actor doing some of his best work decades after “Dances With Wolves,” should have found a more testy edge to this guy, just to make us uncertain about his darkest feelings.
But “Black or White” makes a very entertaining movie for a post-Obama America, a smartly observed story that recognizes we may never be a post-racial America.