Black or White isn’t so much an offensive movie as it is a pointless one. On its surface, Mike Binder’s film about a widowed white grandfather fighting to maintain custody of his biracial grandchild from her paternal black grandmother has all the hallmarks of a white savior melodrama. Told from the point of view of wealthy Santa Monica attorney Elliot (Kevin Costner), who has recently lost his beloved wife to a car accident, the film details his struggles to raise 7-year-old Eloise (a charming Jillian Estell) while dealing with a bitter legal battle that ensues after Rowena (Octavia Spencer), mother to the child’s estranged father, decides that Eloise needs to have a better sense of her black identity.
The film places us firmly within Elliot’s world: It opens with him in the hospital, and it’s grounded in his grief right from the get-go. He and his late wife (played by the great Jennifer Ehle, largely wasted as a silent, ghostlike apparition in dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations) had been raising Eloise on their own for some years, and now Elliot isn’t sure what to do. When Rowena, who lives in Compton with what appears to be her entire extended family crowded into a single home, asks for shared custody of Eloise, her demands seem to him like an added nuisance at a time when he least needs it. Elliot doesn’t want to have anything to do with Rowena; her son, Eloise’s father, is a crack addict, and Elliot holds him partially responsible for his daughter’s death during childbirth seven years ago. When he visits Rowena’s home, Elliot looks on with thinly veiled disgust at the people crowded into rooms watching television, at the hip-hop blasting from the drug house next door, even at the successful clothing retail business Rowena runs out of her garage.
The film seems to share Elliot’s contempt at first, but Binder wants to complicate that point of view. Eloise’s father may be a crack addict, but Elliot is an alcoholic, the kind of guy who loads his coffee mug with whiskey before taking the young girl to school; it’s just that his addiction is a socially sanctioned one, and he can feel free to have an elegant, massive bar sitting in the center of his living room. Elliot’s house might be big and comfortable, and Rowena’s smallish and crowded, but there’s also a sense of community in hers that’s sorely lacking in the chilly halls of his McMansion; at one point, we witness what appears to be an impromptu, family-wide jazz performance. Similarly, when Rowena’s Ivy League–educated lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) comes into the picture with what appears to be a phalanx of cut-throat attorneys, the film takes care to show Elliot conferring with his own smugly offensive legal team. “He has got a problem with black people,” Mackie’s character says. “If he didn’t we wouldn’t be here, would we?” Not long after, one of Elliot’s lawyer chums asks him, “Are you okay, getting ugly?” Each side, it seems, is ready to take things nuclear; by contrast, Elliot and Rowena seem uncertain about pushing matters to such extremes.
Black or White wants to say Big Important Things about how society and our preconceptions force us into those extremes. It also wants to draw attention to the double standard with which we view certain problems, such as addiction. But it takes either a very deft or a very bold filmmaker to tackle these challenges compellingly onscreen, and Binder appears to be neither. The parallelisms he presents here are so schematic that there’s no chance for anything resembling real life to intrude. Costner, who’s been quite good in a number of films during this late career resurgence, often looks lost playing a character whose traits seem more like symbols than anything else. But the film narratively privileges his point of view, so he’s the only character who has even a remote chance of coming to life. Spencer brings some energy to Rowena, with the pointed, almost Jimmy Cagney–like speed of her delivery, but she hasn’t been given a lot to deal with. By contrast, the always-excellent Mackie brings just the right amount of heartless drive to the character of the lawyer brother; it’s enough to make you briefly forget that he’s playing what could easily be interpreted as a racist caricature, the “uppity” black attorney.
As if to temper that portrayal, Binder also has Elliot hire a math tutor (Mpho Koaho) for himself and Eloise; the man turns out to be a hypereducated, savantlike West African whose family was massacred in a village pogrom, and he seemingly knows everything about math, science, and literature, handing out specialized whitepapers the way others hand out business cards. It’s meant to be a positive portrayal, but oddly enough, it highlights one of the key problems of this strange, self-important movie. Everybody in Black or White represents something. It’s a film that wants to put forth a humanist message, but has no recognizable humanity of its own.