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Black or White | Review

Black to Basics: Binder’s Safely Bland Racial Message Movie

The latest film from actor/director/screenwriter Mike Binder, Black or White presents us with the possibility of truthfully representing the severe racial issues still plaguing our apathetic culture, inclined towards the sanitization of such topics in order to adhere to the restrictive umbrella of the politically correct. Unfortunately, Binder drops the ball, opting for a safe portrayal declawed of volatility because it presents us with a dichotomy told entirely through the lens of privileged perspective, when it could have been much more powerful in reverse or even with a hedged juxtaposition. Several well-meaning and even genuinely moving performances save the title from complete dismissal, but Binder’s film aims to assuage middle-class white American guilt rather than expose a lack of acknowledgment concerning the difference of others. Worse, he doesn’t bother to provide equal agency for both ‘sides.’ Yet, from its failings, provides an interesting litmus test of the hypersensitive arena filmmakers are currently operating within—a fantasy land that would seem to ignore the tragic incidents priming much more volatile dialogues outside the frame.

Upon the unexpected death of his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle), successful white lawyer Elliott Anderson (Kevin Costner) is left alone to care for their granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). As Carol’s funeral service commences, we learn that their white daughter, mother of Eloise, died in childbirth, having run off with Reggie (Andre Holland), a young black man with a drug addiction. Though Reggie is also estranged from his mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), Elliott seems to hold her in little regard, even though she’s a talented and affluent matriarch providing nobly for her extended family in South Central Los Angeles as a savvy businesswoman of her own making. But with Carol’s death, Rowena is concerned that Eloise will now be isolated from the other side of the family, and with Elliott spiraling into an alcoholic haze, she hires her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a successful attorney, to file for sole custody of Eloise.

As we dip into Black or White, we descend into a snarl of tangled issues and emotions supposedly pertaining to contemporary issues with race in America. Eloise, a mixed race child caught in the crux of specific circumstances, is meant to be read as the perfect storm with which to examine these issues, but Binder’s presentation is incredibly problematic, mostly for the fact that it brings us lots of unnecessary handwringing rather than presenting us with a situation that is compelling. Instead, this message movie meant to navigate the gray areas betwixt those eponymous pillars of rationalization is all soft serve. This is, for all intents and purposes, the same scenario outlined in Stephen Gyllenhaal’s 1995 film Losing Isaiah (back when Halle Berry was being cast as a drug addict), though without any progressive framework.

While Costner, who starred in Binder’s excellent 2005 film The Upside of Anger (which provided Joan Allen with one of her most memorable roles), is routinely sympathetic here, the character is a complete cop out and is evidence of Binder’s ability to present us only with well-rounded, complete characterizations of white privilege. We’re led to believe that Costner’s only real misstep is a lone utterance of the N word, an incident which calls for his profuse apology, as well as an excuse that hides behind the fact that his character, and perhaps the movie itself, is unaware of its own subconscious racial tendencies.

Initially, Black or White seems like a film that might actually ‘go there,’ with Spencer stepping out voraciously from the demeaning monikers of Grandma Wee Wee that precede her entrance, to confront Costner’s refusal to see the importance of Eloise’s connection to the black part of her heritage, accusing him, when he balks at any reference to race, of not seeing the “there there.” But Binder seems uninterested in exploring this notion of invisible, subconscious racism, the discomfort of the privileged that results in the erasure of race or other labels when interacting with ‘others.’

As Rowena, Octavia Spencer is, as usual, an impressive force on screen. Empowered, intelligent, and engaging, it’s unfortunate that Binder’s script backs her into such a ridiculous corner—her bid for custody is presented as extreme nearly from its first mention, with Costner always presented as the logical savior of young Eloise. Likewise, Binder’s gussied up portrayal of Compton as well Rowena’s incredibly progressive extended family members (a lesbian couple lives harmoniously next door, hosting a musical jamboree while Reggie smokes illegal substances in plain view on the dilapidated porch across the street), feels cloying and overreaching. Would a woman as intelligent as Rowena engage so aggressively with the judge played by Paula Newsome? As a bid to show the competition for dominance between black women, perhaps there’s something worth highlighting there, the teasing out of a stereotype—but Binder presents this as broad, comic relief.

Too easy, breezy, and unabashedly middle of the road, Black or White doesn’t truly grapple with contemporary issues of racism in America. If anything, it’s a shiny product of what the issue has mutated into, a yawning class divide, where economics provides the framework for pools of equality.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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