“Are you alright, Eloise?” says Elliott Anderson (Kevin Costner) to his granddaughter (Jillian Estell). “No,” she says. “I’m super sad.” “So am I,” Elliott says. “It’s the worst day of my life.” His wife – Eloise’s grandmother – has died. Their daughter – Eloise’s mother – died in childbirth, seven years previously. Eloise, biracial, has an absent, drug-using father, Reggie (Andre Holland), whom she doesn’t know. She’s grown up with her white grandparents in an up-scale Los Angeles suburb, attending a private school. This sets up a legal battle for custody of Eloise between her black paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), and Elliott, her white maternal grandfather.
Is Elliott racist? Can Reggie get clear of drugs? Will Elliott conquer his alcoholism? How will the court decide? For answers, see “Black or White.”
Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Andre Holland, Anthony Mackie (as lawyer Jeremiah), and Paula Newsome (as family court Judge Cummins) are excellent, as is young, charming Jillian Estell as Eloise. Costner and Holland’s characters each have drug issues – alcohol and crack, respectively. “Have you been drinking?” Eloise says to her grandfather. “I don’t like it when you drink.” But he’s in denial. “Your daughter needs to be in your life,” Rowena says to son Reggie. “That’s why you’re so broken. Pull yourself together.” He’s trying.
Octavia Spencer and Anthony Mackie are siblings Rowena – self-made business woman – and Jeremiah – successful and wealthy attorney. Mpho Koaho is Duvan Araga, over-achieving tutor for Eloise and driver for Elliott, a likeable character who relieves some courtroom tension. Paula Newsome is Judge Cummins, voice of reason and rationality.
“Black or White” is a serious-minded melodrama, addressing serious racial issues, with strong performances, especially from Costner, Spencer and Mackie. Mike Binder provides good direction and a script that succeeds through the film’s first 90 minutes, deftly defining the characters, but falters in its last half-hour with a series – six or so by my count – of improbabilities. I’ll not list them, but note only that they allow everyone, at film’s end, to be more or less sorted out, making for a satisfying movie ending – everyone dances together during the final credits – but hardly credible. Like Elliott’s earlier dream and last-act hallucination, the ending belongs in another movie.
Rated PG-13 for strong racist language, mature themes, drug-use, smoking, and a fight, “Black or White” runs 121 minutes. It’s an adult film you’ll want to talk about on your way home.
“Black or White” courtroom tale,
Biracial family blending –
Compelling characters, but
Hardly credible ending.