Black or White tell the story of Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner), a successful attorney whose world gets turned upside down after his wife (Jennifer Ehle) is killed during a car crash. Elliot begins drinking heavily in order to stifle his grief, even as he attempts to fill the hole left by his recently-departed spouse and serve as the primary caregiver for their granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). Meanwhile, Eloise’s other grandmother Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) – a.k.a. “Grandma Wee Wee” – leans on Elliot to let her and her family play a larger role in Eloise’s upbringing.
When Rowena’s demands go largely ignored by Elliot, she turns to her lawyer brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) to help her and Eloise’s father, Reggie (André Holland), seek custody of Eloise so that they might raise her themselves. However, as the court battle looms nearer, the members of Eloise’s respective families are forced to confront some hard truths about the past – and realize that the answer to the question of how best to raise Eloise might not be as black or white as they would like to believe.
Inspired by real events, Black or White is a movie written and directed by Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me) that recalls his previous directorial work in how it deals with larger social/political subject matter (here, race/class-based tensions) through the lens of a more personal narrative (about the grieving process) that blends feel-good comedy with heavier melodrama. And similar to Binder’s past film work, the final result here is a perfectly satisfactory, if somewhat unremarkable dramedy.
Binder’s screenplay unfolds onscreen in something of an episodic fashion; the first act is a (grand)father-daughter story, before the second act plays out closer to a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-style comedy/drama, and the third act delves into courtroom melodrama (while the tensions boil over at home). Which is to say, Black or White has a fair amount on its mind, but ultimately ends up delivering its messages in a heavy-handed fashion, in order to reach a (mostly) satisfying thematic conclusion. And in the end, the insights it does offer are worthwhile, but fairly conventional.
In general, the film is stronger during the more intimate moments between characters, rather than when big life-changing incidents happen (or when the important lessons are learned). That’s in no small part thanks to the lead performances by Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, who (coupled with Binder’s script work) help to bring more depth and humanity to what might’ve otherwise come off as stock characters. Similarly, young Jillian Estell brings a lot of naturalism to her performance as Eloise, making the character more than just a cute plot device to drive the proceedings forward.
As a director, Binder’ strength is being able to draw strong performances from his cast, though he and Reign Over Me cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrooks (whose resume also includes such comedy movies as Superbad as well as comedic TV series New Girl) occasionally make noteworthy use of mise-en-scène staging and camera shot framing techniques. As a general rule, though, Black or White tends to be pretty straight-forward in its visual presentation and technical construction, so it doesn’t necessarily demand to be seen in a movie theater.
Black or White‘s leads, as mentioned before, deliver strong performances, though the supporting cast proves to be equally capable. Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Bill Burr (Breaking Bad) both make for empathetic side players, as the family member and friend who represent, respectively, Rowena and Elliot in their courtroom fight. Likewise, André Holland (Selma) is compelling as the struggling Reggie, whose own substance abuse issues juxtapose well with Elliot’s alcohol abuse.
Meanwhile, Paula Newsome (Suburgatory) is good as a no-nosense judge who comes into play in the story – though, Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) and Gillian Jacobs (Community) end up feeling under-utilized given their minor roles (as Elliot’s deceased wife and Burr’s girlfriend, respectively), but do fine work regardless. Last, but not last, is Mpho Koaho (Falling Skies) as Duvan Araga, a highly-accomplished tutor whom Elliot hires for Eloise – one whose quirks are charming (despite being played for laughs a bit too often), but who also brings a useful outsider perspective to the general proceedings.
It’s far from ground-breaking in its social statements, but Black or White is still a solid comedy/drama buoyed by good performances all around. The film is too middle of the road in its approach to amount to much more than standard feel-good dramedy about sensitive issues, but it has something meaningful to offer all the same. So, if you’ve already caught up on the current awards season releases (and aren’t in the mood for any other January releases), then this Costner/Spencer film could be what you’re in the mood for.
Black or White is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 121 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight.
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