‘Black or White’ leaves no room for gray area


Photo Courtesy IMDb

“Black or White,” starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, tells the story of a mourning widower (Costner) who is brought into a custody battle over his granddaughter (Jillian Estell) whom he has helped raise for her entire life.

By Max Ginkel

In America, conversations about race often take place in a world of gray. The film “Black or White,” a new family drama written and directed by Mike Binder, does not take place in this world, though. True to its name, the film tackles the issue solely in terms of black or white, figuratively and literally, making for a very dull film.

The film stars Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a bitter, older man, and Octavia Spencer as Rowena Jeffers, or Grandma We-we. Elliot’s wife dies early in the film, leaving him to care for his granddaughter, Eloise, whose mother died giving birth and whose father, Reggie, has been out of the picture for quite some time. Reggie’s mother, Grandma We-we, disapproves of Eloise staying with her grandfather because of his alcoholism and files for custody. Elliot despises this, mainly because of his distrust of Reggie, a crack addict whom he blames for the death of his daughter. Grandma We-we views his contempt as blatant racism, causing chaotic court hearings, shouting and lots of binge drinking. All contrived, and none of it entertaining.

Binder certainly tries to present his film as an open and honest depiction of the race conflict in this country, yet it immediately fails at this and falls into the pattern of telling the white guy’s story. The movie starts and ends with Elliot, leaving out the perspectives of the characters of color. The film only follows his narrative and his character arc. Grandma We-we does not even enter the film until 20 minutes in, and Reggie takes even longer to appear. This is not his or Grandma We-we’s or even Eloise’s story—it is all about Elliot.

In addition to several characters being neglected, they are all terribly boring. The only one who shows any actual development is Elliot, but it is confined to learning a new language. His story is not a steady or gradual one. It is as if the filmmakers trust the audience will assume he has learned something throughout the film. The rest of the characters are simply flat. The flattest character being Reggie, who is undoubtedly, an awful dad. He continuously disappoints his daughter, Eloise. The movie constantly weighs who’s better for Eloise—Elliot or Reggie—and is obviously slanted against the latter. Instead, the writers should have compared Elliot to Grandma We-we, who is an incredible grandmother and caretaker. The movie also continuously paints Reggie with stereotypical, negative perceptions. The film never explores why Reggie is the way he is or why he doesn’t want to be there for his daughter. He never defends himself despite the many opportunities—he spends most of the movie smoking crack and glaring at people while they try to confront him.

Another issue with the comparison between Elliot and Reggie is the film’s paralleling of one individual’s alcoholism to the other’s crack addiction. Structurally, the two vices burden the characters equally, but that dynamic does not exactly work. Reggie’s crack addiction is portrayed as a very dark and serious issue, while Elliot’s drinking is mostly included for laughs, even though he is drunk for most of the film. In the end, he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, but the issue is never seriously addressed.

In addition to poor character development, the film’s score is awful. Plunking piano or flute music is audible in the background of every single scene. The audience is inundated with sound, but it is the type of monotonous music that plays in a grocery store or an elevator. It is almost as if someone was crouching behind the audience shouting, “Feel sad now!” or, “Feel happy now!” Not only is it condescending to the viewer but, it is also downright annoying.

The film ends with a trial deciding Eloise’s guardian. Despite being filled with long-winded speeches about race, the N-word, and Grandma We-we attacking the judge, the conclusion leaves viewers dizzy with confusion. Even if the audience can move past the blatant ignorance of how a courtroom is actually run, viewers will never be exactly sure what they have learned from the film. 

As ludicrous as it sounds, the movie essentially said, “Racism is a systematic issue, but sometimes it is OK to hate people who are bad, even if they are black, and also, do not say the N-word.” These lessons are nothing new or mind-altering, and they are all ideas one would hope viewers today would already agree with. This film brings nothing new to the conversation of race. With films like “Selma” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” the discussion of racism takes place in new ways, reaching much bigger and more mainstream audiences with a much higher discourse. There is still a long way to go, and films similar to “Black or White” are not helping us get to that point.