Black or White

Directed By: Mike Binder

Starring: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Jennifer Ehle, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, and Anthony Mackie

There are two different categories of feel good movies.  There are those flicks that are saccharine and shallow as they play up one stereotype after another in the most formulaic fashion.  There's a special place in movie hell for these features.  It's called basic cable.  Then, there are those feel good movies that are vibrant and joyous as they defy the stereotypes inherent in the film's subject matter in a creative and refreshing way.  That's the difference between films like When the Game Stands Tall and Remember the Titans.  Unfortunately, this weekend's Black or White falls in the former category.

The world is crashing down on attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner).  Having already lost his daughter seven years ago in childbirth, his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) passes away suddenly after a tragic car accident.  There are only two things he has left in this world, his biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) and his bar stocked with an array of liquors.  Because Eloise's father Reggie (Andre Holland) is an absentee father and a crack addict, Elliot and Carol have been her primary caregivers.  Now, it's just Elliot, or so he thinks.

Rowena "Wee Wee" Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), Reggie's mother and Eloise’s other grandmother, doesn’t quite see things Elliot’s way.  She wants to bring her grandbaby to live with her in South Central LA.  Despite the reality that Eloise’s papa Elliot takes good care of her and has her in the best private school in town, Wee Wee believes that her granddaughter needs love that only a (grand)mother can provide.  With Carol now out of the picture, it has to be her.  With the help of her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a successful corporate attorney, Rowena files for full custody of Eloise against Elliot.  Unwilling to roll over, Elliot turns to his best friend and legal partner Rick Reynolds (Bill Burr).  Now, Eloise’s fate lies in the hands of Judge Cummins (Paula Newsome).

I’m just going to rip the Band-Aid off because there is no way in hell I’m going to endorse a film with a stereotypical black mom named Wee Wee.  Black or White serves up a bounty of stereotypes that would even give Lifetime a bad name.  As you can see with Wee Wee, there are a wealth of negative labels about people of color in particular laced throughout the movie.  You’ve got the overbearing mother/grandmother who tries her hardest to whip her kids into shape in Octavia Spencer’s Rowena.  You’ve got the absentee father who just also happens to be a broke crack addict in Andre Holland’s Reggie.  You’ve got the successful but cliché angry black man in Anthony Mackie’s Jeremiah.  With all the flaws in Eloise’s stereotypical black family that are heavily emphasized by director Mike Binder, Kevin Costner’s Elliot somehow gets a pass for years-long alcoholism that’s deteriorated to the point that he feels the need to hire a driver.  His addiction is excused and glossed over just because Elliot learns a new language as a distraction or because a friend of a friend says he’s just angry at the world.  Frankly, that’s just not good enough.  Binder needs to address this in a more serious way.  Selectively playing up stereotypes, Black or White just doesn’t serve up an adult conversation about a subject that is far more complicated than what Binder depicts.

Though Black or White is infused with some humor and offers plenty of zingers, it’s not due to any effort put forth by the cast or crew.  Director Mike Binder just lets Kevin Costner play Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer play Octavia Spencer on the big screen as Elliot and Rowena.  Costner naturally has a blunt, self-loathing persona on screen, while Spencer has a maternal presence.  They just go at it throughout the film without any real direction or guidance from Binder.  The same can be said for Anthony Mackie as Jeremiah.  The guy who recently said that people are tired of being bombarded with race huffs and puffs for two hours about how his on-screen nephew plays into all the stereotypes about black men, except for the one into which Mackie himself is playing in the movie.  Giving a fairly decent performance, the young Jillian Estell mostly has the cute kid factor going for her.

It’s clear where I stand on Black or White.  It’s an underwhelming undercooked endeavor that delves into more complex social topics than something akin to a TV movie ever should.  The film just doesn’t address the nuance of its subject matter in any way, shape, or form.  You’re going to need a few rounds of whiskey with this one.  Black or White gets a 0.09% rating.