Black or White
Were it not for recent events concerning police brutality and structural racism, Black or White would have quietly come and gone in theaters. Instead, it has received substantial media coverage and scrutiny for its plot and themes, and for what it has to add to the national racial dialogue occurring in America. The movie claims in its beginning to be “based on true events”, in a bid to bolster its applicability to the audience and current debates on the double standards black and white people encounter in society. Somewhat surprisingly, the issue of family turns out to be more prominent and more skillfully handled in this unfocused and loosely organized drama.
A car crash leaves Elliot Anderson’s wife dead, and he is left alone to raise his biracial granddaughter Eloise. He is determined to raise her well, but his grief over the loss of his wife hinders him and exacerbates his alcoholism. To his dismay, Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena, or Grandma Wee Wee, files suit for her son Reggie to gain custody of the girl. Elliot continues to nurse deep bitterness at Reggie for impregnating his daughter and abandoning Eloise, and he vows to fight tooth and nail to keep Eloise. The biggest battles turn out to not be only the legal issue of who gets to raise Eloise, but also the tug-of-war over earning Eloise’s love and Elliot tries to reconcile with Reggie, who has suddenly returned and tries to become a part of Eloise’s life.
Contradicting its title, the movie offers a varied portrayal of its characters and their handling of race and family issues. Kevin Costner is magnetic in his role as Elliot, easily being the film’s most fascinating and complex character. He drinks constantly, but as his lawyer tells him, he may not actually be an alcoholic. His true addiction is to anger. Anger about his daughter’s misdeeds and death, as well as his wife’s death, Elliot wages a constant battle with his temper, culminating in uttering a racial slur at Reggie that comes back to haunt him in court. The speech Elliot delivers to explain his true feelings about race is a heartfelt and surprisingly eloquent statement of how everyone makes initial judgements about others based on skin color, but how crucial it is to move on from the first thought. “It’s my second, third, fourth thoughts that count,” Elliot says, and it’s a wise lesson to everyone. Rowena, played with gusto by Octavia Spencer, is similarly captivating as a self-made woman who instigates the lawsuit and tries to bring Eloise close to her side of the family. The conflict between the quiet and stable upbringing Elliot provides and the raucous and warm environment Rowena provides drives the plot and the barbs Rowena and Elliot trade with one another make up the bulk of the film’s humor.
When it comes to dissecting the treatment of race under the law and how the conflict affects children, the film is less successful. Eloise occasionally resembles an object to be won more than an actual person, and the movie does little to explore her personality changes and opinions on her family. She is supposed to be the motivator for the story, but it is never very clear what she thinks of the custody dispute, and while there are occasional mentions of reports from her sessions with a court-appointed psychologist, for some reason we barely get any insight into those reports. Duvan, the African tutor Elliot hires for himself and Eloise, is interesting but two-dimensional. His foreign background, intellectual demeanor and difficulty interacting with Rowena’s family are a missed opportunity for touching on racial themes.
Reggie, the ne’er-do-well father, is a disappointment in how little he moves the plot. He tries hard to stay off drugs, but no one believes him when he insists that is clean. The audience later learns that he is indeed lying, and his drug use isunsubtlyequated to Elliot’s dependence on alcohol. Elliot, however, manages to make up for this shortcoming with the luxurious home and the affection he gives to Eloise, so Reggie never seems like an attractive parent to Eloise. Rowena, in contrast, is a far better candidate than her son to raise Eloise, but insists that Reggie be the one to gain sole custody, in an implied attempt to make her son more motivated to turn his life around. The plot then takes an unwelcome turn during its final thirty minutes for the melodramatic by featuring a violent altercation between Reggie and Elliot. The scene is too different and jarring to mesh with the rest of the film, and is a last-minute development that makes a predictable denouement even more predictable. As the film ends and we see the resolution, it’s not clear why the trial was even necessary to begin with, and why the family couldn’t settle their differences without a court battle.
For all its timeliness, Black or White feels oddly irrelevant. The stakes are never high enough for us to really care or worry about the characters and their struggles. Reggie is too meek and too unfocused to ever credibly challenge Elliot for custody of Eloise, and our knowledge of Reggie comes more from what other characters say about him than what he says about himself. At times too hammy and at other times too distant, the movie does a better job at depicting the difficulties of keeping a family together than approaching race.