If one can get over the awkward title and Kevin Costner’s near growl of a voice, there’s a lot to like about “Black or White.” It has a solid cast and appreciable frankness, and it authentically attempts to tackle issues of race in a personal and understanding way. But “Black or White,” written and directed by Mike Binder and funded by Costner, pairs this genuine humanism with a multitude of storylines and archetypal Hollywood elements, and the film ultimately suffers.
The film opens on Elliot Anderson (Costner), a wealthy Southern California lawyer whose gruffness belies a deep anguish, in a hospital waiting room. Still reeling from the unexpected death of his 17-year-old daughter in childbirth, Elliot has just lost his beloved wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle), in a car accident. While the film makes it abundantly clear that Elliot is not handling her death well—Costner probably spends the majority of his screen time holding a bottle of liquor—it also underlines his efforts as he tries to raise his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), who is eight years old at the time of the story. Despite his boozing and inability to comb Eloise’s hair, Elliot feels justified in his right to raise Eloise, a right called into question by the indomitable matriarchal force that is Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), who wishes to raise Eloise on her own.
“Black or White” is buoyed by strong performances, but for all of the film’s intent to show the human elements in racial prejudice, many of the characters veer too close to stereotypes. When Mackie’s character puts his passion to use in the trial, his consistent sharp tone and self-centeredness feel artificial. Even worse is Duvan (Mpho Koaho), the precocious West African math tutor Elliot finds on Craigslist, whose extreme earnestness marks his character as a clear ploy to get laughs rather than a real dramatic agent. Luckily for Binder and for the audience, Costner does a stellar job at portraying the many facets of Elliot’s struggle with grief. Octavia Spencer’s laser-like eyes and soulful presence particularly stand out, animating every scene.
Though Binder imbues the ensuing family drama with plenty of heart, “Black or White” struggles mainly because it does not know quite which film it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a story of a tense but tight grandfather-granddaughter relationship that rightfully bears witness to Elliot’s pain and his often pathetic attempts to deal with it. But this storyline is largely abandoned about halfway through in favor of Reggie’s—whose portrayal by Holland barely saves the character from being a damaging stereotype—and his effect on a bitter Elliot. Reggie’s return to Eloise’s life brings up resentment and disappointment from all sides, which serves to flesh out the characters’ backgrounds but does not advance the point of the story.
Then again, the point of the film is never clear . For all of the film’s boldness in addressing issues of race in a personal setting, any real message is obscured by an ending steeped in Hollywood mawkishness and cliché.The film has strong scenes, but these moments don’t get the deeply personal ending they deserve. To be sure, “Black and White” does much with its fraught material and is sincere in its efforts to explore the dynamics of this family struggle without judgement. But its reckoning of race is ultimately mere academic discussion, burdened by a few vague characters and occasional discomfort. The real message seems to be that people are just people who can love, mess up, and maybe forgive—but no one needs a film to know that.