Black or White: Simplistic Interracial Melodrama Starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer

black_and_white_2_costner_spencerThough socially relevant, well intentioned in message, and superbly acted by its two leads, Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, Black or White is a simplistic and blatant courtroom melodrama, lacking nuance, subtlety, and strong characterization.

Actor Kevin Costner must have believed in the validity of his project for he poured $9 million out of his own pocket to make this schematic and old-fashioned multi-generational melodrama.  A better director than Mike Binder ((Reign Over MeThe Upside of Anger) could have made a more interesting film out of this timely interracial family melodrama.   Producer-star Costner must have chosen Binder after teaming  with him on The Upside of Anger, in which Costner renders a strong and vivid performance opposite Joan Allen.

black_and_white_4_mackie_spencerHalf of the film is set indoors in the courtroom, where a white alcoholic grandfather, whose daughter had died in a car accident, is raising his black granddaughter, against the wishes of her beloved black  grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who strongly believes that the girl should be raised by the norms and values of her “real” and “natural” subculture.

Signs that the melodrama is headed in the wrong direction are manifest from the very beginning. Take, for example, the clumsy and schematic opening scene, which introduces California attorney Elliot Anderson (Costner), taking solace for his loss at his lush home bar, which is fully stocked with Scotch.

black_and_white_3_costnerElliot is not a bad man, just a pathetic one who, feeling sorry for himself, clings to his only reason to exist, giving good education to his mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (newcomer Jillian Estell), age 7, who’s been living with him ever since the girl’s mother had died at childbirth and her drug addicted father Reggie (Andre Holland) was sent to jail.  (The drama wuld have been more interesting is the father was not such a cliche of a violent loser)

Though trying to cope with his duties and responsibilities, he seems to be slowly drinking himself into oblivion.  At one point, he doesn’t remember the route to Eloise’s school.  Things change slightly for the better, when he hires an intelligent black instructor named Duvan (Mpho Koaho), to help him (and also provide some comic relief to the otherwise static and solemn melodrama)

Soon Elliot comes head to head with Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer), a caring but strong and stubborn matriarch, who is determined to gain custody of her granddaughter through the help of hotshot lawyer, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), who happens to be her nephew.

black_and_white_1_costner_spencer“Inspired by a true incident” per the credits, the screenplay by Binder paints an overly broad and movieshly familiar portrait of a fractured family living on opposite sides of the racial barrier.

Black or White raises some interesting questions about parental responsibility, racial prejudice, stereotypes of both whites and blacks, and other politically significant issues, but the film is so broadly conceived and so sluggishly helmed that it makes the Kramer Vs. Kramer, the mediocre 1979 custody battle picture directed by Robert Benton, seem like a masterpiece.

Star power and nominal subject matter may help elevate the commercial prospects this pedestrian film at the box-office this weekend, but in both ambition and execution, Black or White really belongs to the small screen, alongside other honorable telepics about timely socio-political issues.