Mike Binder, an American writer / director (“Love Reign Over Me”, “Man About Town” returns with a new drama film that he has written and directed, “Black Or White”.
The film opens with a shot of Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner – “3 Days To Kill”, “Dances With Wolves”) sitting in a hospital corridor where he’s just learned of the death of his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle – “Fifty Shades Of Grey”) as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident.
As their seventeen year old daughter had died in childbirth, this leaves Elliot with sole responsibility for his seven year old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell – “So This Is Christmas”).
It’s made clear that Elliot is a rich, successful lawyer, with a large home, swimming pool and maid. All that counts for nothing though as he struggles with his grief, drinking too much whilst trying to do his best to step up and take care of Eloise – who tells him off if he’s not forceful enough when telling her to clean her teeth!
At the wake for Carol, Elliot is approached by Eloise’s black paternal grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer – “The Help”, “Insurgent”), herself a successful businesswoman, who says that she wants to have joint custody of Eloise, so that Eloise isn’t brought up by Elliot alone, and so that she can experience life with her extended black family and their own culture.
Eloise’s father, Reggie Davis (André Holland – “42”, “Selma”), has had next to nothing to do with Eloise since her birth. He has a criminal record, a history of drug abuse and was several years older than Eloise’s mother. Elliot blames the death of his daughter on Reggie’s negligence. As far as he is concerned Reggie ruined his daughter’s life and he isn’t prepared to let him ruin his granddaughter’s too.
Elliot takes a leave of absence from his job, and hires a multi-lingual tutor Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho – “Poker Night”) to help Eloise with the maths homework that he can’t and to teach her new languages, but sits in on the lessons so that he can learn alongside her.
Rowena’s brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie – “Captain America”, “Playing It Cool”) is also a lawyer and represents his sister as she decides to file for sole custody, and decides that the best way to win the case is to “play the race card” and portray Elliot as someone who has a problem with black people.
Court appointed counsellors then have sessions with Eloise, and it’s not long before she is feeling unsettled by events, and tensions on all sides increase and what started as a simple disagreement over where a child should live becomes focussed as much on race as anything else.
Costner portrays his character perfectly, as a troubled, conflicted and flawed man trying desperately to do the best for his granddaughter. Spencer is equally impressive in her role as a mother with a blind spot for her errant son’s failings, played by Holland with great empathy for a man battling his demons, and little Jillian Estell is brilliant as the child caught in the middle of all of this.
I have heard arguments that this is a typically “white” film portraying the rich white man as being on the side of right and the dysfunctional black family being perhaps unworthy of having custody of the little girl, but I didn’t feel it played that way at all.
Rather, I saw a wide variety of black characters – some successful, others not. Some good, some not so. And as I said, Elliot is very much a flawed individual too. So, just like the title, there is nothing portrayed here as being black or white – and more than anything else this is a touching human story of a little girl, a father and a grandfather. Definitely worth watching…