Black or White—The AllMovie Review

★ ★ 

Kevin Costner became a major star at the end of the 1980s and remained one of cinema’s most popular leading men during the ’90s, but he lost a great deal of buzz after a series of disappointing projects around the turn of the millennium. With Black or White, a custody drama that attempts to address the country’s racial divide, he’s reteamed with The Upside of Anger’s writer/director Mike Binder; while the film isn’t all that interesting, it does offer a clue as to the kinds of parts that might be an ideal fit for the now-60-year-old Costner.

He plays Elliot Anderson, a wealthy lawyer from Southern California whose life is shattered when his wife dies unexpectedly. As a result, he must now raise his elementary-age granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) by himself; he and his wife had been her guardians after her mother, their daughter, died in childbirth. But Elliot is soon forced to contend with Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), Eloise’s African-American paternal grandmother, who believes that the girl needs to spend more time with her father’s side of the family.

Elliot resists, primarily because he blames Eloise’s drug-addict father Reggie (Andre Holland) for his daughter’s death. One day, his anger towards Reggie comes out in the form of a racial slur, which, combined with his worsening alcoholism, might give Rowena and her savvy lawyer (Anthony Mackie) enough ammunition to win custody of Eloise.

Binder was a seasoned standup comic when he transitioned into being a writer/director, and he’s never lost the belief that you can get people’s attention simply by saying things nobody else is saying. Having Costner hurl the vilest of epithets at Reggie is the most shocking moment in this film, because we aren’t used to hearing it said by well-liked movie stars playing characters for whom we’re supposed to feel empathy.

The problem is that Binder pulls his punches everywhere else in the film. He tugs at your heartstrings with Eloise’s confidence and self-possession, and all of the characters are inherently likable. Elliot is a wonderful dad, Rowena is the kind of grandmother anybody would want, and Eloise is a little angel who seems unaffected by not having a regular maternal presence in her life. There’s little doubt that everyone has the girl’s best interests at heart, so the movie becomes little more than an attempt to prove that just because you’re a privileged white man who drops an n-bomb in anger, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a bad guy.

Although the script lacks nuance or any real tension, Binder uses Costner effectively. Elliot’s inability to address his own hurt and pain is at the heart of his problems, and watching Costner, once a symbol of everything right and good about America, be brought low by grief is fascinating. Jimmy Stewart had a marvelous late-career relationship with Alfred Hitchcock that brought out the dark side in his decent screen persona, and while Costner will hopefully find a better filmmaker than Binder to work with, Black or White similarly gives him the opportunity to show vulnerability—and it looks much better on him during his AARP years than the role of action hero. At this point in his career, he’s more intriguing as an emotional mess than as Eliot Ness.

Still, the movie relies on a ridiculously contrived climax; Binder doesn’t have enough faith in the central idea of his story, and instead resorts to violent and ridiculously ham-handed melodrama to drive his point home. That decision underscores the film’s inability to explore race relations with any degree of realism.

When it played at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, this picture was called Black and White. Changing the title to Black or White might not seem like anything more than a cosmetic alteration, but the fact that both are apropos reveals how superficially the movie addresses the topic it purports to be about.