Mike Binder’s ‘Black or White’ is making me yawn just thinking about it. It is as if this script about “important stuff” was on Spike Lee’s desk, but Tyler Perry jacked it and made the movie.
Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) is a recently widowed, affluent, spasmodically liquored up Los Angeles attorney whose white daughter gave birth to a half-black girl, Eloise (Jillian Estell). It is revealed that Elliot’s daughter died in childbirth. Naturally, the baby’s black father (Andre Holland) is a crack addict who has been in and out of prison. Elliot’s wife (an underutilized Jennifer Ehle) dies in a car accident right at the start of the movie, and the infant’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer) hires her attorney brother (Anthony Mackie) to sue for custody.
‘Black or White’ tastelessly hybridizes elements of courtroom drama, interracial custody drama and, in a really stupid third-act reversal, home-invasion thriller. The film’s biggest misstep is that this is a story told from a privileged, middle-to-late-aged white man’s perspective. Even when he drops the n-word whilst at a completely phony crossroad,, the audience is asked, for some unmerited reason, to have Elliot’s sympathy. He cherishes his granddaughter – he calls her “Puppy”, which only contributes to the film’s unintentional condescension (and there is a lot between the film’s white characters and black characters), and he deserves to be with her. The battle between Elliot and Rowena is inequitable, at least in terms of narrative, which is why the many courtroom scenes feel like wasted screen time. Don’t we want Eloise to be raised in an advantaged Los Angeles suburb, where she is provided with the means to attend an elite private school? Elliot has some thoughts about racism, which are articulated in a big speech he gives under cross-examination. The black characters just believe Eloise should live with them as a matter of ideology, absent of any sound rationalization.
‘Black or White’ means well. It has its heart in the right place. But, it doesn’t have a brain in its head. For a movie about this subject matter, it doesn’t have the conviction to say anything of importance about class and racial perceptions, mixed-race extended families, alcoholism, substance abuse, or anything really. During one scene, the audience members at the screening I attended began sobbing. I joined in on the sobbing too as I realized that this movie was about to rob me of 121 minutes of my life. QED.