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Review: 'Black or White' offers only some whitesplaning

Kevin Costner plays a grieving drunk stuck in a custody battle with Octavia Spencer in a film about race relations with few concrete ideas.

‘Black or White’
Director:
Mike Binder
Stars: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Black or White” is one of the messiest films ever made, which is to say it’s hard to knock down (or praise). It’s a look at modern race relations, but one with few concrete ideas. It’s a button-pusher that nonetheless lacks conviction — which, considering some of the things it half-says, is probably a good thing. It’s a serious, occasionally melodramatic drama that also takes delight in Kevin Costner playing a grieving but sometimes enjoyably pissed-off drunk. Its problems often also serve as saving graces. And yet a film on this subject also feels grossly insufficient being released into this exact cultural climate. And yet on top of that, while grasping madly for straws, it gets its hands on a couple of them, perhaps because one would have to. Back and forth it goes.

The focus is on a custody battle over Eloise (Jillian Estell), an adorable and mostly mawkishness-free young girl of mixed race. Her mother is long dead, and her father (“The Knick”’s Andre Holland) is an MIA junkie. She lives with her wealthy maternal grandfather, Elliott (Costner), who in the opening loses his wife (Jennifer Ehle, a terrific actress banished to wordless flashbacks). With her gone, the other side of Eloise’s family — the one that doesn’t live in a rich neighborhood in Los Angeles — demands she relocate with them. Elliott puts up a fight, in part because he’s never had good relations with Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), a loving but opinionated business owner. Their tiff balloons into a trial, both sides stubbornly refusing to cave, or even admit they each have copious drawbacks.

To its credit, and despite the title, “Black of White” doesn’t try to pick sides, and at its best it freely pokes holes in both. Elliott doesn’t want Eloise ripped from her school and the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed — but he also can’t stop boozing and is getting up in years. Rowena becomes so driven to win that she forces Eloise’s father to pretend he’s cleaner than he really is. This could have been insufferable whitesplaining, especially considering it’s by writer-director Mike Binder, whose “The Mind of the Marrying Man” is one of the whitest things ever to play TV. Instead it’s only somewhat that, always pulling its reckless punches right before they land. Is that because Binder lost its nerve or came to his senses? Probably a little bit of both.

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It’s still reckless. Making Eloise’s dad a ghetto stereotype — an unreliable junkie who will probably turn violent when the plot requires him to — is unfortunate and retrograde. And as much as Binder tries to engage with an issue, it’s still one noticeably out of his range. “Black or White” usually comes off as a white perspective on a bi-racial issue, especially given how it subtly stacks the deck in Elliot’s favor. He’s introduced suffering a major loss and makes better decisions than Rowena, who is more cutthroat than sensible. (That she also starts pouncing on him at his wife’s wake signals her as less than likable.)

And then there's tone. Its humorous subplots — including a bit where Elliott hires an African immigrant to drive his drunk ass around, or Gillian Jacobs mostly cracking jokes as the girlfriend of Elliott’s lawyer (Bill Burr) — seem less like comic relief than excuses for it to not seriously engage with the copious issues it raises. (The only bit that really slays is an epic stare-off between Rowena and the black female judge she assumed would blindly rule in her favor.) Elliot's drinking problem, meanwhile, is fairly incoherent. Rowena repeatedly scolds him for his constant boozing, and it's clear it's taking a toll on his parenting. But it's also played for laughs, much the way Binder took glee in watching Joan Allen deal with the death of her husband by getting rip-roaring pissed in "The Upside of Anger." Binder knows how to write for casual alcoholism; Elliot proudly points out that he's not drinking just because of grief but because he enjoys it. But what could be complexity comes off as mere incoherence.

Yes, “Black or White” could have been a million times worse. It’s not another “Crash,” and its loose comic side does subtract from any potential pomposity. It genuinely feels like Binder knows he’s not making a statement but merely raising questions that don’t have easy solutions. Then again, given how little it says, the melodramatic flourishes of its last act and the banality of its resolution, it’s probably never needed to exist at all.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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