In the past year, race relations have reclaimed the spotlight in America’s politisphere. And curiously, 2014 saw the release of two seminally important examinations of racism in modern America: Justin Simien’s Dear White People and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. I use the word “curiously” because both films began production months before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the main impetus for the most recent wave of racial unrest. Mike Binder’s Black or White, on the other hand, completed principal photography in mid-2013 where it lingered in obscurity while waiting for a distributor. Now almost seven months after Michael Brown’s death the film has finally been released. Ostensibly a courtroom drama, Black or White is actually one of the most sensitive and intelligent introspections of American race relations in quite some time. And considering the freshly inflamed racial zeitgeist in the wake of Selma being largely snubbed at the Oscars in favor of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), a film derided by many as a white male power fantasy at best and racist, jingoistic propaganda at worst, the film is a welcome breath of sanity.
The film is about Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner), an affluent white lawyer who finds himself in the middle of a custody battle when the paternal relatives of his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) sue for custody after the death of his wife. Years earlier, Eloise’s mother died in childbirth at 17 years old and her father Reggie (Andre Holland), a 23-year- old black man from South Central Los Angeles, ran out on her and became a crack-addict. Rowena (Octavia Spencer), the matriarch of Reggie’s family, initially sues for shared custody because she can’t bear the thought of Eloise growing up with only a single parental figure. Part of her desire also springs from her unease over the prospect of Eloise being cut off from black culture and her black relatives. But first and foremost the issue is familial in nature and earnestly well-intended. Race may be an issue, but it isn’t the issue.
At least it starts that way. One of the most fascinating dynamics of Black or White is its condemnation of the judicial system which forces the racial element of Rowena’s case to the forefront. Before long Rowena’s legal counsel starts to paint a picture of Elliot as a racist alcoholic. The court orders Eloise to attend a series of counseling appointments to investigate how “happy” she is with her white father. Soon the little girl who wanted nothing more than to live with her grandfather starts to distrust him. The people she draws in crayon stop being white and start being black. The apex of her transformation comes one evening when she screams that she wants to live with her “real” father, i.e., the father who once tried to abduct her as a baby while high on drugs. To make matters worse, this “father” reappears and is goaded by Rowena into demanding sole custody of Eloise… despite the fact that he is still a crack addict. What started as a civil disagreement about the care of a young girl becomes a racial battleground.
Admirably, the film refuses to take sides on the issue of who Eloise should really be with. It is far more interested in the character of the human beings involved in the struggle. Costner’s performance as Elliot is his best in years, creating a portrait of a broken man completely at the mercy of his anger and hurt. Spencer’s Rowena is equally flawed as she is completely unwilling to recognize her son’s drug addiction as she strings him along as an unwilling pawn in her struggle against Elliot. If the film had been released a month earlier I don’t think it would be unreasonable to expect that Holland would have picked up an Oscar nomination for Reggie. He narrows in on an aspect that most actors neglect when portraying onscreen junkies: the complete, total, all-consuming, inescapable self-loathing. And I may have never heard of Miss Jillian Estell before, but if this film is any indication she has a serious career ahead of her.
The final thing that I want to address in this review is something that I think most reviewers have missed while assessing the film: its portrayal of black people and culture. I cannot remember the last time I saw such a wide variety of American blackness represented onscreen: blacks living below the poverty line, affluent blacks, upwardly mobile blacks, and more! There are black criminals, black judges, black lawyers, black musicians, black mothers, black fathers, black children. Rowena herself is a self-made businesswoman who operates six businesses from her garage in South Central and supports upwards of a dozen relatives living in her home. But in a grim touch of economic realism, they live just across the street from a crack-house. Black or White explores many different facets of black identity. The question is whether or not they are any more valid than a white one. And I am so thankful that the film had the wisdom to refrain in giving an answer. Because to answer would be to miss the point. This is the story of a father, a grandfather, and a sad little girl.