Black or White recalls an early episode of South Park wherein Chef (R.I.P.) campaigns to change the town flag. For as long as anyone can remember, the flag has depicted four white stick figures gathered around a black one, the latter hanging by its neck from a gallows. Chef tries to rally local support but finds little success, becoming more and more outraged at what he perceives as apathy. And then Chef learns that the town never took issue with the flag due to unbridled racism, they just never actually saw black or white—they saw only people. (And didn’t understand why Chef was making such a racket about the death penalty.)
The resulting feel-good sentiment, if self-congratulatory, comes from a place of goodwill and fine intention. It points to the idea that to overcome bigotry and racism, we must together erase the notion that people are different. Once we have successfully willed ourselves colorblind, comprehensive equality will permeate all levels of society.
This is the idea behind Black or White. Written and directed by Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), the film is loosely based on events regarding the director’s own experience with a biracial upbringing. It’s also the product of a severely misguided understanding of race dynamics, an understanding that basically claims that since white people participate in and reinforce systematic racism, it’s the responsibility of white people to lead the charge to break down all race barriers.
This ethnocentrism is an inescapable guiding element of Black or White, a movie that means well but lacks the conviction and cultural awareness necessary for anything substantial. Aesthetically and tonally, Black or White is a run-of-the-mill, Saturday morning family movie, harmless and without persuasion. The sun shines, pastels abound, and the film is generally scared of tackling its complex subject matter with anything but feebleness, either for fear of stepping on any toes or because it’s aware of its heavy white slant.
Kevin Costner, who volunteered $9 million of his own money to get Black or White off the ground, gives a heartfelt and notably selfless performance as Elliot Anderson. When we meet Elliott, he’s at the hospital, despondent from the news of his wife’s recent passing. But grief is no stranger to Elliot: His daughter was just 17 when she died giving birth to his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), who has lived with her maternal grandparents since she was born. After letting his friend Rick—Elliot’s Sancho Panza in the form of a neutered Bill Burr—struggle through condolences, Elliot heads home with a heavy heart and heavier drinking habit, ready to settle in to his life as a widower and single grandfather.
Like many kept husbands who find themselves without a better half late in the game, the domestic and parental duties that belonged to his wife now fall on Elliot’s shoulders. Enter: Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), Eloise’s paternal grandmother. Rowena, “Grandma Wewe” affectionately, believes shared custody will be best for Eloise. Elliot does not.
Eloise’s father, Reggie, is played with both grit and eloquence by Andre Holland. He’s a bad apple and a wayward soul, and Binder tries his damnedest to validate Elliot’s averseness to granting Reggie partial custody (and Wewe, by proxy) by plaguing the biological father with money problems and a crack addiction. Reggie is one of the film’s few black characters who demonstrate any real agency, and while Holland contributes greatly to that, it’s also a warning sign of Black and White’s genetics. Look to Rowena’s brother, attorney Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie, also terrific), who serves as a mouthpiece for unabashed race-carding and white-shaming. A sharp-tongued African American man with a law degree, he will use a black victim narrative to discredit a white man’s testimony without hesitation, turning the court system against a race it historically favors. These are the pillar black characters allowed any substance in the film: two depthless symbols of the African American “experience,” two characters furthering the stereotypes Black or White wants so badly to believe it’s above.
Rowena, however, though played spiritedly by Spencer, is reduced to an insubstantial, one-dimensional punch line, and the nuclear and extended family members with whom she shares her home have the personality of lobotomized sheep. (Though on the weekends they liven things up by turning in to an 18-piece jazz ensemble, because: fun!) Couple this lazy character development with the film’s most revealing scene, wherein Jeremiah asks Elliot if he has a problem with black people, to which Elliott replies, “Not all of them.” It’s an honest, difficult moment, one in which the movie isn’t woefully afraid of how loudly or how lightly it’s treading.
But it’s also a moment which reveals how Black or White works. Elliot feels attacked because of his disdain toward Reggie—a man who has broken into his home, stolen from him, pulled a knife on him, and is at least partly responsible for the death of his daughter—and Jeremiah uses that disdain to make Elliott out to be a bigot. The message the film sends is relatively clear: We’re all people, none perfect—Elliot has his drinking problem, Jeremiah has his shamelessness problem, Reggie has his everything problem—and while those who live in suburban glass mansions shouldn’t throw stones at municipal houses, polarizing language and unwarranted vilification hurts everyone. Granted, a declarative, 48-font title like “Black or White” will have certain implications. It’s the banner under which an affluent white man flies down from his castle-like suburbia to prove his granddaughter is better off with him than in an inner-city neighborhood with the black side of the family—and learns something about himself along the way! But the laughably simplistic way Black or White goes about defining who “not all of them” represents turns the film’s message into a case for staying in one’s lane.
Director: Mike Binder
Writer: Mike Binder
Starring: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie, Andre Holland, Bill Burr, Jillian Estell, Mpho Koaho
Release: Jan. 30, 2015