In Black or White, Kevin Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a successful Los Angeles attorney whose 17-year-old daughter died during childbirth. The child’s father, a drug-addicted black man, took no responsibility for his daughter, so Elliot and his wife raised young Eloise.
But when Elliot’s wife dies in a car crash, the girl’s paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) proposes that she share custody with Elliot. He rejects what seems like a perfectly reasonable offer.
PG-13 for on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Her son may be wayward, but Spencer’s Rowena appears to be entirely responsible. She cares for her nieces and nephews, presides over a happy household and runs a successful real estate business.
Despite the fact that he’s drinking too much and dealing with grief, Elliot finds himself in the middle of a custody fight that dominates what becomes an increasingly unconvincing look at the divide separating an affluent LA lawyer his scrappy opponent.
The problem: Black or White doesn’t delve deeply enough into the characters who are upholding different sides of this custody fight.
The movie also stacks the deck against Eloise’s father (Andre Holland), a troubled young man who turns up about half way through the movie, claiming that he’s reformed.
Holland’s Reggie is so obviously ill-prepared for fatherhood that the movie never gives him a chance. He tries to extort money from Elliot, and winds up in a late-picture confrontation that’s neither believable nor fair.
Costner does a good job portraying alcoholic denial and the unexpressed anger Elliot harbors about his wife’s death, but he’s stuck in a scenario that goes where most second-rate dramas land, the courtroom.
There, writer/director Michael Binder cooks up a strategy in which Rowena’s brother — an attorney played by Anthony Mackie — tries to convince the presiding judge that Elliot’s a racist with a bad drinking problem.
Perhaps to keep us from losing sympathy for Elliot, he’s portrayed as a somewhat responsible drunk. Elliot hires an unwaveringly earnest math tutor (Opho Koaho) for Eloise. Elliot also asks the young man to double as a driver when he’s too inebriated to get behind the wheel himself, which is most of the time.
Black or White doesn’t spend enough time with Rowena to make us understand what she wants for Eloise, and it never allows her to articulate a reasonable argument about why a black child needs to be exposed to other blacks.
Elliot seems to be living an all-white life.
The movie tilts that way, too. Black or White spends entirely too much time with Costner as it leads us toward a finale in which one side essentially gives up.
Too often, Black or White misses the opportunity to explore the gray areas that could have shed real and productive light on an interesting problem. The movie concludes as if it has resolved its issues. I’m not sure, though, that it ever really tackled them.