Movie Review: ‘BLACK OR WHITE’ Doesn’t Recognize Any Shade of Gray

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Cole Clay // Film Critic


BLACK OR WHITE | 121 min. | Rated PG-13
Director: Mike Binder
Stars: Kevin CostnerJillian Estell, Octavia Spencer, Gillian Jacobs, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, André Holland and Anthony Mackie

Let me preface this review by saying it’s difficult to be too hard on Kevin Coster. I’m not sure what it is but I have a soft spot for the guy. He’s got an all-American, boy scout-like quality to his demeanor that allows him to be instantly likable. However, the past couple of years his films have been hum-drum recycled schlock that few rushed to see (exhibit A).

For the racially charged courtroom dramedy BLACK OR WHITE, he’s back collaborating with writer/director Mike Binder (UPSIDE OF ANGER) with Costner on producing duties. It sheepishly approaches the “white elephant” in the room by broadly painting on the canvas of race relations in America.

Rich white guy Elliot Anderson (Costner) has recently lost his wife to a fatal car crash (yeah, it’s sad; moving on), all the while the couple had been caring for their criminally adorable grand-daughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), after her mother died during child-birth, who just so happens to be… (wait for it)… (you’re gonna love this)… mixed race!

Eloise has trouble understanding the news and once her paternal grand-mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), gets wind of this and barrels her way into the picture in an attempt to gain custody of the seven year old with the help of her high-powered attorney brother (Anthony Mackie).

Throughout the charade we’re supposed to be feeling sympathy for Elliot, but his crushing guilt and alcohol dependency begin to take control of his life. Just when you think things couldn’t get any crazier, Eloise’s dead-beat, druggie father Reggie (Andre’ Holland) gets dragged into the mix after being in-and-out of jail and his battle with crack addiction. Both of these men are attempting to cope with two similar forms of substance abuse, or so the script wants you to think. It’s an insulting way of beating it over your head that these two men aren’t so dissimilar.

Kevin Costner and Jillian Estell star in Relativity Media's movie BLACK OR WHITE. © 2014 BLACKWHITE, LLC. Photo courtesy of Tracey Bennett.

Kevin Costner and Jillian Estell star in Relativity Media’s movie BLACK OR WHITE. © 2014 BLACKWHITE, LLC. Photo courtesy of Tracey Bennett.

Binder is handling some heavy material here, yet the direction constantly calls for comedic bits that undercut the gravity of each dramatic beat. Most don’t work aside from a recurring callback where Eloise’s wunderkind math tutor, Duvon (Mpho Koaho), has an insistent need to distribute his resume to the majority of people he encounters.

BLACK OR WHITE is not without a few moments of genuine sentimentality, but the L.A. centered film portrays a cartoonish crack house that’s located right across the street from Rowena’s safe-haven family life couldn’t feel anymore divorced from reality.

The last 45 minutes or so of the 121-minute drama spends time showing how much of a lost cause Reggie is as a stereotypical dead-beat dad, but Binder’s perspective allows Elliot to be a flawed character without cutting Reggie any slack. This becomes Elliot’s journey about curing his white guilt. I don’t get it; Eloise is cast aside for the majority of the second act by becoming a mere pawn in the custody battle.

Costner has one of the best courtroom scenes in the history of film for his work in JFK, and BLACK OR WHITE climaxes with a such scene that’s playful yet earnest attempt to bring the issues to a head. But Costner’s monologue about race is obtuse, albeit delivered with conviction. These types of scenarios only exist in the movies and TV, and BLACK OR WHITE is out of touch with reality. But hey, at least we got to see Costner ham it up with an enchanting little child actor for a few scenes.

BLACK OR WHITE opens tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.