[Screen It]

"BLACK OR WHITE"
(2014) (Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Following the death of his wife, a lawyer fights to retain custody of his mixed race granddaughter from the girl's other grandmother and her deadbeat, ex-con son.
PLOT:
Elliott Anderson (KEVIN COSTNER) is a successful lawyer whose world is turned upside down when his wife is killed in an auto accident. The two of them had been raising their mixed race granddaughter, Eloise (JILLIAN ESTELL), from birth (where her teenage mother perished) through the current third grade, and Elliott wants to continue that.

But the girl's other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (OCTAVIA SPENCER), thinks that Elliott isn't raising Eloise with enough black heritage and interaction with the rest of her extended black family. Thus, she is threatening to sue him for custody via her lawyer brother, Jeremiah (ANTHONY MACKIE).

Elliott's law firm partner, Rick Reynolds (BILL BURR), immediately springs into action along with some other lawyers to help him, especially in exposing that the girl's father, Reggie Davis (ANDRE HOLLAND), who she's never met, is an unfit dad and role model, what with his past drug addiction and other criminal convictions. But Elliott isn't squeaky clean, what with his drinking problem that started with his daughter's death years ago and has only gotten worse following his wife's death.

Accordingly, he has Eloise's new math tutor, Duvan Araga (MPHO KOAHO), also serve as his driver. That's something that ends up exposed in the court case where Elliott and his team try to prove that he's the best option for raising Eloise, all while Rowena pushes her brother and son to do whatever it takes to get custody of the girl.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
And I told about equality
An' it's true
Either you're wrong or you're right
But, if you're thinkin' about my baby
It don't matter if you're black or white

"Black or White" Michael Jackson

We all know that people are the same where ever we go
There is good and bad in everyone,
We learn to live, we learn to give
Each other what we need to survive together alive.
Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord why don't we?

"Ebony and Ivory" Paul McCartney (as performed with Stevie Wonder)

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since MJ sang "Black or White" and nine years longer than that when Wonder and the former Beatle put out their "why can't we just get along" song. Yet, despite those and many other attempts at turning everyone into colorblind citizens of the world, racial strife still continues here and abroad.

It's certainly a big part of the movie "Black or White," a family drama not exactly based on Jackson's race-based song. Instead, it's "inspired by true events" as many a film nowadays states as compared to the old "Dragnet" line about "The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

In this tale, Kevin Costner plays a lawyer who learns, in the opening scene, that his wife has perished in a car accident. That obviously rocks his world and he finds it difficult to tell his granddaughter (Jillian Estell) -- who he and his wife have raised since birth following their teenage daughter dying in childbirth -- about her grandma's passing.

If that's not bad enough, the third grader's grandmother (Octavia Spencer) on the other side of the family -- and racial divide -- suddenly wants custody of the child, even if her son (Andre Holland) -- the girl's father who she's never met -- is a deadbeat dad with a long criminal record and history of crack cocaine use. Accordingly, she gets her successful lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) to represent her.

These developments only further exacerbate the protagonist's current drinking problem. That results in him hiring his granddaughter's new math tutor and apparent fluent thesis paper writer (Mpho Koaho) to serve also as his driver, whether that's to his downtown law firm or the South Central neighborhood where the girl's other side of the family lives.

As in many a script, there's obviously potential here for some dramatic fireworks in terms of legal proceedings, family issues and race-related thematic elements. Sadly, writer/director Mike Binder (who last worked with Costner on "The Upside of Anger") doesn't convincingly delve much deeper than the superficial and stereotypical in telling this tale that's loosely based on his own experience raising his late sister's biracial child in Los Angeles.

It doesn't help that most of the black characters are little more than stereotypes, with the performers playing them having to work mightily hard to keep such roles from being offensive. The worst revolves around Spencer playing the sassy, outspoken and eye-rolling black woman who's apparently intelligent enough to run six businesses out of her garage, but not smart enough to know heated outbursts don't play well in court proceedings in front of a judge.

Andre Holland fares slightly better as the ex-con and crack junkie who's trying to get his life in order, but everything written for him is pure stereotype. Mpho Koaho appears as both the comic relief and "magic Negro" character who helps the white protagonist solve his life problems (despite that cinema archetype, I enjoyed his performance), while Anthony Mackie inhabits the role of the successful lawyer who managed to get out of a troubled neighborhood but can't escape it entirely (due to his sister, the antagonist).

One of my bigger issues, though, is that I just didn't buy this non-jury judicial proceeding ever getting the green light, something the presiding judge (Paula Newsome) briefly comments on, but allows to go through. After all, the girl has lived her entire life with her grandfather in an affluent neighborhood and attends one of the best schools in the country, while her biological father has never even met her, and she apparently barely knows and spends little time with his mother.

And as much as I hate criticizing a young actress' performance, Estell isn't that good in the part, with her precociousness feeling forced, and her (ever so brief) grief over her grandmother's death playing about as faked as they come. Costner, though, is quite good, giving his character various layers and levels to make him a flawed hero in the hearts and minds of most viewers.

The biggest issue for yours truly, however, is that the racial elements just didn't ring true when not otherwise being far too on the nose. Other than a brief moment where Costner's character drops the "n" word in a heated argument with his granddaughter's father (and later explains that use during the court custody hearing), he doesn't appear to have a problem with black people. Now, I'm glad he doesn't in general, but that is something that robs the film of some potential dramatic fire had he possessed more pronounced racial issues. And since the black characters operate mostly from stereotypes, that side of the argument of trying to play the race card similarly feels artificial and dramatically inert.

I understand what all involved are trying to say and do with this offering. I just don't think they did it as well as they could have, and there's no gray in that assessment. "Black or White" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed January 26, 2015 / Posted January 30, 2015


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