Black or White (2015) is a film based on real-life events in Writer-Director Mike Binder’s extended family life. The movie features gritty and fearless performances from its leads, Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) and Octavia Spencer (The Help), as well as the impressive ensemble cast, who manage to re-define the concept of family drama. While Black or White makes great strides and highlights serious issues (racial tensions, drug addiction, bi-racial identification, family dysfunction, alcoholism, grief), it falters in many ways and relies on stereotypes to carry the message of the film.
Black or White opens with Elliot Anderson (Costner) being notified of his wife’s death via a car accident. Elliot’s wife, Carol, who is played by actress Jennifer Ehle (A Gifted Man), was the emotional and functional head of the household as well as primary caretaker of their bi-racial granddaughter, Eloise, who they have raised since birth. Eloise is played by Jillian Estell in the film and this newcomer is a natural. She gives a breakout and moving performance, which is sure to garner future roles if she opts to pursue acting. Elliot and Carol raised Eloise following their daughter’s death during childbirth. Their daughter had a congenital heart defect and was a drug addict, both of which precipitated her death while in labor with Eloise. Elliot has many unresolved issues surrounding his daughter’s death and drug addiction, which he blames in large part on Eloise’s father, Reggie Davis, who was portrayed by actor André Holland (1600 Penn) in the film.
Reggie has been largely absent from Eloise’s life and remains entangled in drugs, despite all the hardship it has brought to everyone involved. Following his wife’s death, Elliot has his own issues with addiction as his drinking spirals out of control. It is at this point that Reggie’s mother and Eloise’s grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), enters the picture. She is a woman with a mission. Rowena is a strong, tough, and successful woman who has made it on her own. She wants to be part of her granddaughter’s life, provide a refuge for Eloise from Elliot’s drinking, and expose Eloise to her African-American roots. As a result, Rowena initiates a custody battle for Eloise’s care with the help of her attorney nephew, Jeremiah Jeffers, who is played by actor Anthony Mackie (Iron Man). Mackie has a tough role to play in Black or White, the Kevin Costner-Octavia Spencer family drama, as he carries the totem of angry black man who is seeking justice. However, in this case, he is not seeking justice for himself and has been reluctantly pulled into the situation due to family loyalty. He also must inform his aunt that their best chance of winning custody of Eloise lies in painting Elliot as a racist, which is unsettling to Rowena.
While Elliot might hold some opinions that are unflattering, he is not a man who is overtly bigoted or racially prejudice and Rowena recognizes that fact. The opinions Elliot has formed are directed at Reggie and stem from his angst over his daughter’s drug addiction, as well as her death. He is a man in pain, and in the wake of his wife’s death, he has spun out of control. His wife was his center and she helped keep him in check. Now that she is gone, Elliot is adrift and Rowena is concerned about him, as well as her granddaughter.
Black or White has very good intentions but relies way too much on stereotypes and clichés to convey the message of the tale. Black or White falters in this respect on many occasions, especially towards the conclusion of the film. The final courtroom sequences are moving but predictable. Moreover, while the ending is bittersweet and redemptive in some ways, it raises more questions than it answered. In this day and age, with the impressive cast assembled for the Kevin Costner-Octavia Spencer family drama, the audience expects more than it was given in Black or White and rightly so.
Opinion and Review by Leigh Haugh
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