07262017Headline:

Not Everything is Black or White

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By Jeff Boudreaux

Kevin Costner stars in Mike Binder’s “Black or White,” a story of race, love and personal demons. This was the film that opened the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival as well as being filmed here. Familiar local actors such as Spud McConnell and David Jensen pop up here in interiors and city streets doubling for the “other” LA, Los Angeles.

Our story opens with well-to-do attorney Elliot Anderson (Costner) mourning the death of his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle), who was just killed in a car accident. It’s not quite evident if Elliot had a drinking problem before his wife’s passing, but he sure does now. He figures it is one of his only ways to cope with his loss as well as a tool for dealing with his newfound sole guardianship of his granddaughter. The girl, Eloise (newcomer Jillian Estell), is the offspring of a mixed relationship between Elliot’s deceased daughter (I know right) and a troubled drug-user named Reggie (Andre Holland). Since neither one of the immediate parents are an option for taking care of Eloise, that distinction fell upon Elliot and his wife.

Now alone, Elliot deals with the struggles of raising a ten year old girl the best that he can. One thing that is very clear is the love that he has for the child. He treats her as if she was his own daughter, and yes Eloise is all that actually remains of value in Elliot’s world. Of course, Eloise has another family that is tied to her by as much blood as that of the Anderson’s. I am referring to the Jeffers family, led by feisty matriarch Rowena (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer). Grandmother Rowena, or “Wee-Wee” as she likes to be called, has a loving household on the other side of town – South Central L.A. to be exact. Because the Jeffers are mostly shut out of Eloise’s life, they file an injunction for sole custody of the girl through Rowena’s attorney/brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie). This creates some tension between the two sides and the audience is left to decide what is best for this young girl.

This movie has a lot going for it. There are some genuinely sweet scenes between Elliot and Eloise (try saying that ten times fast!) There’s also a fresh amount of humor, especially when Elliot tries to fill the void of Eloise’s dead grandmother by attempting to brush her frizzy hair, or trying to help her with her common core math homework! It is then that Elliot hires a tutor of African descent who provides more comic relief by claiming he has written a paper for every one of life’s problems or standing in as a “bodyguard” during Elliot’s visit to Rowena’s neighborhood.

With that being said, I also can’t help but feeling that a great deal of this film has been contrived or forced. I wish I had a dollar for every time Rowena or her family says “give me some love” to someone in the film. There is also a scene where the returning Reggie, who claims he is clean by the way, is shown smoking crack and having that moment contrasted with Elliot’s drinking. I can see the point that writer-director Binder is trying to make, which is that all of us have our own vices or demons to control. What I don’t agree with is the equation of an illicit drug like crack cocaine with that of whiskey, a legal yet sometimes abused substance. It’s just not the same thing, nor should it be viewed that way. I don’t think any rational person would want to see an innocent child subjected to a crack-smoking father, period. “Black or White” does however attempt to open up debate about the effects of race upon mixed relationships and it succeeds halfway. There is certainly a tremendous amount of love on both sides of this racial fence.

Kevin Costner, just like in “McFarland USA”, gives a solid performance as a man who is just trying to hold onto the only thing he has left. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer provides her own brand of comedy here and you can’t help but be amused by her antics. Director Mike Binder previously struck gold with the post-9/11 parable “Reign over Me” from 2007, which starred Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn. That film was about the friendship between a black and a white man and at no times did it seem artificial. It was about trying to help your fellow man, an act that could have fit perfectly into this film, but was sorely missing.

** (two out of four stars)

 

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