Black or White

Black or White is a sincere attempt to start a dialogue on race relations in America. That's not an easy thing to do, particularly in our hypersensitive political climate. The problem is that the film itself is not a dialogue, but a monologue. More frustratingly, it's a monologue delivered by the side that should be doing less talking and more listening. More often than not, it plays like your slightly racist uncle's favorite film about prejudice.

The film begins with its strongest scene. Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams) receives a phone call informing him that his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle, Contagion) has passed away. Elliot is overwhelmed, unable to fully process the news. His pal Rick (Bill Burress, Breaking Bad) clumsily tries to console him. Finally, after a few minutes of stilted banter, the reality starts to sink in and Elliot bursts into tears. It's a touching, honest moment that Costner plays perfectly. It's one of the last honest moments the film will offer.

Elliot is now solely responsible for raising his African-American granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell, So This is Christmas), whom he and Carol had adopted after their daughter died giving birth. Eloise's father is a troubled drug addict named Reggie (Andre Holland, 42), who has never been involved in his daughter's life. However, Reggie's mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, The Help) has always played an important role in Eloise's life, and now feels that Elliot may not be up to the task of raising the girl by himself. It doesn't help that Elliot has developed a serious drinking problem in the wake of Carol's death. Rowena contemplates filing for joint custody of Eloise. When Elliot responds poorly to the suggestions, she decides to file for full custody.

In theory, this scenario could have provided a compelling (if convoluted) platform for an honest conversation about race. Elliot's the sort of guy who doesn't particularly want to acknowledge the color of his granddaughter's skin – as far as he's concerned, she's not a black girl, she's just a girl. However, he's uncomfortable bringing her over for visits in Rowena's predominantly black neighborhood – he feels it's an “unsafe environment.” Rowena perceives Elliot's attitude as thinly-veiled racism, and feels that he'll be unable to provide Eloise with the sort of support and understanding that she might receive from Rowena's family. These two characters make harsh assumptions about each other, and each is quick to point out the other's shortcomings. Unfortunately, Elliot is written as a real character while Rowena is merely a plot device.

This problem is almost certainly attributable to the fact that the film was written and directed by a white man, Mike Binder (whose work includes the excellent The Upside of Anger and the terrible HBO show The Mind of the Married Man). Binder seems to identify with Elliot in a number of ways, going out of his way to explain and (at least partially) justify every mistake he makes and every ugly view he holds. At one point, Elliot angrily refers to Reggie as a, “street n-----.” It's a nasty moment, and there's a powerful scene later in the film in which Elliot admits that his words were inexcusable. It should have been left at that, but Binder can't resist the temptation to qualify it: Elliot then explains that he heard Reggie refer to himself that way all the time, so Reggie is basically responsible for planting the phrase in Elliot's head. “That was racist, but also an honest mistake,” the film seems to say. Costner's portrayal of the sort of racist who doesn't actually think he's racist seems fairly accurate, but Binder doesn't seem to think Elliot is racist, either. I'm not saying that white men are incapable of writing thoughtful, even-handed, nuanced dramas about race. I'm just saying that this particular white man hasn't done so.

On the flip side, none of the film's black characters are granted any complexity – they're one-dimensional at best and stereotypical at worst. Rowena is too often reduced to providing comic relief, standing up and shouting at inappropriate moments during the courtroom scenes. After Elliot finishes delivering his big speech during the film's climax, Rowena gets a speech of her own – but it's much shorter and much less believable. Binder seems incapable of getting inside the mind of most of his characters, leading to scenes in which they deliver lines that feel bizarrely unconvincing. This applies to Eloise, too: in one scene, she angrily tells a drunken Costner, “I don't want to live with you! I want to live with my daddy!” That doesn't sound like something a young kid would say. It sounds like the sort of thing an adult writer imagines a kid would say. The scenes at Rowena's house – large ensemble sequences featuring her extended family – suffer from so much bad writing that they feel like parodies of themselves. Contrast the loose, funny, natural warmth of the family scenes in Chris Rock's Top Five to the stilted, forced quality of similar scenes in this film. It's painfully obvious which ones were written by a white guy.

On top of presenting a misguided view of its subject matter, the film is a little boring. The talky second half tends to drag, though I suspect the tedious writing is more to blame than the lackadaisical pacing. The dopey soundtrack is another liability, generally switching between two modes: pizzicato underscore that unsubtly shouts, “Hey, this is cute and mildly amusing!” and drippy, on-the-nose song selections that overemphasize the intended emotional impact of numerous big scenes.

Black or White makes a lot of serious mistakes, but I think it has a good heart. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the perspective required to understand that its goodheartedness is insufficient. It's the cinematic equivalent of a white man explaining this country's racial divide to a room full of black people (quite literally, as it actually contains scenes where a white man explains this country's racial divide to a room full of black people). Instead of providing a legitimate response, Rowena simply agrees that Elliot is correct and that she's been too hard on him. If you don't think that's a problem, then you're probably the sort of person who will find Black or White a powerful and challenging examination of racism.

Black or White

Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Year: 2015