“This isn’t about Black and White. This is about Eloise.”
Somewhere, buried beneath the chaos and confusion of Black or White, there is a good, solid B-movie to be found. Unfortunately for the film every memorable moment and iota of emotion has been cremated, tucked away and safely stored behind a complete mess of a movie, only to be pulled from the mantle and presented to the audience after we’ve already distanced ourselves from the manipulative story. There are some really amazing scenes, decent acting, and enough twee sentiment to keep you in your seat. But while it briefly charms, Black or White proves to be unnecessarily maddening and frustrating. The title suggests a binary, this or that story, and it still can’t choose between the two. If I’m writer / director Mike Binder, with this being his first directorial effort in 7+ years, I wouldn’t file for custody.
Big shot lawyer Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) has just lost his wife to a terribly unfortunate car accident. That leaves him alone with granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Her mother died during childbirth, so PaPa and Grandma are all she’s known as parents, especially since her junkie, thieving father wants nothing to do with her. This opening third is a breeze to get through and has all the tidy makings of a thoughtful movie about moving on post-tragedy. Elliot has to take over full-time parenting duty. The list includes: brushing her hair, learning to tie a bow, taking her to school, making sure she studies, bedtime stories. The routine things he has never done because somebody else, his wife, was always there to do them for him. Also it should be noted that Eloise is mixed. Black AND White. Not that it matters, but here, in this story, it’s shoved in our face.
The irritation comes from Eloise’s other side of the family. Grandma Rowena, or “Wewe” (Octavia Spencer), is the mother of Eloise’s absent father Reggie (André Holland). She wants to file for custody because she believes her granddaughter needs more than just her grandfather. She needs her aunts, uncles and cousins. To experience her culture and history. All people and things that Eloise does need. But as I sat there watching the movie, I cringed every time Spencer’s character came onto the screen. She thinks to have Eloise’s best interest in mind without ever asking the girl herself. Eloise likes living with her PaPa. She’s happy there. It’s where she wants to be. The movie tries to make Rowena a likable character. She’s entrepreneurial, has a happy home and good family, and works hard to provide for her loved ones. Despite all of that, she attempts to tear a little girl away from the place she calls home, even if there are problems there. That’s inexcusable in my books.
Elliot wouldn’t have a legitimate custody battle on his hands if not for his drinking woes. He goes from a heavy drinker to full-blown alcoholic so fast that it almost seems fake. In one scene he searches the house for a bottle of scotch hidden by his maid and it harkens to the debilitated drunk Don Birman from The Lost Weekend. I wish I would have counted how many times we see him at his fully equipped home bar or hiding his drink in a coffee mug. It’s overdone to say the least. Black or White has some bright spots though. Costner does his best with a character who’s usually incapacitated or not fully there. He has a monologue that is really incredible and reminds us why he’s a great actor. Eloise’s math tutor, and Elliot’s, is a 19 year-old foreigner named Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho). He’s an enterprising wonderkid, fluent in 9 languages, always ready to hand you his resume, a flyer, or a paper of his that’s been published in some academic journal. It’s a fun, albeit marginalized character. Lastly, you cannot help but love little Jillian Estell as Eloise. She’s adorable beyond belief. That’s why I hated when she altogether disappeared from the film.
Black or White could have been about 5 different movies. Instead, every storyline you can dream up is thrown into a blender and pureed until that tasteless chalky foam develops. I would not call this another “White Guilt” movie either. Elliot isn’t a fair-skinned god out to save the Black community. He’s a broken man trying his best to take care of the only person he has left in his life. The worst grievance is the false stereotype every Black character fulfills. An overbearing loudmouth matriarch, a degenerate street junkie, an educated and defensive race advocate, and an otherworldly genius boy who turns into a wisdom dispenser. These aren’t people. They’re social constructs, and no one outside of Eloise is genuinely real. I felt bad for her once the movie ended. Black or White, a film at its most fundamental level about race, forgets to add the colors of life to a hollow, insincere, convoluted story.
“You’re a God damn cliché.”
Rating: 2 out of 5