VOD film review: Black or White
Ivan Radford | On 31, Dec 2015Reading time: 2 mins
Director: Mike Binder
Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell
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“It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” sang Michael Jackson in his 1991 single, which tackled the subject of race and prejudice in three minutes and 20 seconds. 14 years later comes this film of the same name, which batters you over the head with them for just over two hours.
The drama, which stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, a white widower who is trying to raise his biracial granddaughter Eloise (a very likeable Jillian Estell) by himself. Her paternal grandmother (Spencer), though, wants Eloise to be raised by them, prompting a legal battle between the two halves of the family. The return of Eloise’s absent father, Reggie (Andre Holland), who was a drug addict, only complicates matters.
It’s a noble attempt to dissect important issues in modern society, a place where tolerance and acceptance often seem to be in sadly short supply. Holland, who impressed in 42, The Knick and Selma, is good as Reggie, making him more than just a stereotypical cut-out, while Octavia Spencer enjoys herself as the pushy grandma bringing legal action to bear. To his credit, meanwhile, Costner throws himself the role of the grieving granddad, half the time on the verge of tears and the other half of the time with a bottle of booze to his lips.
That’s where Black or White begins to fall apart: in trying to tackle all the Important Subjects, Mike Binder’s script keeps piling on the Serious Life Problems and doesn’t know when to stop. Elliot doesn’t just have the custody battle to deal with, he also has the loss of his wife in a car crash hanging over him. That, meanwhile, drives him to a fight with alcoholism, which also may or may or not be related to racism. As all that’s going on, he hires a young tutor to teach Eloise maths – and him another language, just in case he didn’t have enough baggage to carry.
By the time we reach the courtroom, it’s a wonder that Costner can stand up buried under all those cliches. The custody hearing grinds to a halt in the middle of his cross-examination so that he can deliver a passionate monologue from the witness box about the colour of his daughter’s skin. Then proceedings continue for another 20 minutes. In between, confrontations and arguments do their best to muddy the waters on each side of the argument, but even the deliberately layered portrayal of these characters feels laboured; the cast, despite their commendable efforts, never quite carry the sentiment off smoothly enough to be convincing. The result is an honourable attempt at examining pertinent themes, but one that wades into the debate with heavy hands rather than sensitive gloves.