A month after Selma hit theaters and tackled the issue of race relations head-on, we get Black or White, a Disney-ish, almost family film that also has race relations at its heart. It’s just too bad there’s just not much heart there.
There is a relatively convoluted set up, however, so pull up a chair.
Kevin Costner is Elliot Anderson, the alcoholic maternal grandfather of little Eloise (Jillian Estell), the product of an interracial relationship and whose mother died in childbirth. Eloise has been raised by her white grandparents ever since, but when a car accident claims the life of grandma (Jennifer Ehle), Elliot becomes the sole provider. That is, until Eloise’s black paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) enters the picture, seeking full custody (Eloise’s father has been away in Seattle smoking crack, we’re told.)
There’s no doubt that director and screenwriter Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me) had the potential for a tug-at-your-heartstrings drama with a solid social message, punctuated by a top-notch cast, but Black or White just can’t seem to get out of first gear. The end result is a largely generic, safe film that falls short of reaching its potential. And the bland “elevator music” score by Terence Blanchard doesn’t help anything either.
Black or White has its moments, sure, but the tone bounces around too much for the film to come together as a cohesive whole. Binder’s screenplay includes both liberal sprinklings of the N-word and a bevy of cutie-pie moments with the adorable Estell– giving the film the feel of a bizarre Annie/A Time to Kill mash-up.
Costner and Spencer, for their parts, are terrific, putting all they can into their performances. Costner particularly shines whenever he’s battling the bottle, and Spencer, though not at the same level as she was in her Oscar-winning turn in The Help, brings plenty of life and personality to the part.
There’s nothing inherently wrong, per se, with Black or White— it’s a perfectly fine, by-the-book examination of race and family relationships. But it could have been so much more, had Binder first decided what kind of film he was making and then followed through.