I’ve always admired the work of filmmaker Mike Binder a bit more than most (particularly the underrated gem Reign Over Me, though also many of his smaller comedies as well), particularly in terms of the material he gives his actors. As such, I’ve had my eye on this bit of would be awards bait (or more accurately now, would have been) since it was first announced. Re-teaming with Kevin Costner after The Upside of Anger was so well received (and snubbed for Oscar attention, I might add) almost a decade ago, they can’t quite recapture the magic here with Black or White, though Costner does turn in what is easily one of his very best performances to date in his career. Without him, this would be a rough film to sit through at times, though far from a bad one. It’s just that Binder gives Costner such a juicy part (his first as a grandfather, I believe) that he’s the main reason this is the minor success it is. I think that it’s really a shame that this never got the awards traction for Costner that he deserves, as it’s a part worthy of recognition. There are strong supporting turns from Anthony Mackie and particularly Octavia Spencer, along with young actress Jillian Estell, but Costner is the core. This drama tries to tackle race and certain aspects of society while also playing it safe, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success or a particularly effective combination, though a strong finish does help to mostly balance it all out. For Costner’s work at least, Black or White is a film well worth seeking out. You’ll almost certainly be impressed with the acting on his part, if not from the entire cast.
Elliot Anderson (Costner) is a still grieving widower when we first meet him. He’s just buried his wife (Jennifer Ehle), leaving him as the sole guardian of their granddaughter Eloise (Estell). Their daughter has passed on as well, while Eloise’s junkie father Reggie (Andre Holland) is currently out of the picture. Elliot isn’t the first person you’d assume could be both a grandfather and a legal guardian, as the older attorney has what appears to be developing a drinking problem, though he clearly loves his granddaughter. Eloise’s maternal grandmother Rowena (Spencer) loves her too, and is concerned that Elliot isn’t going to be able to fully give her the attention she needs. When she expresses that to him, and even suggests Eloise live with her a bit, Elliot chafes at the idea and a feud begins to brew. Eventually, Rowena takes it to the point of bringing on her lawyer brother Jeremiah (Mackie) to file a custody suit. Further complicating things is the re-emergence of Reggie, who seems to want to be in Eloise’s life again. Elliot clearly just wants to take care of his granddaughter, and so does Rowena, but soon it’s a battle between two stubborn people, with a little girl caught in the middle. There are some iffy subplots, but as the film moves into a third act court battle, the heart and soul of the picture becomes clear.
Kevin Costner has always been an underrated actor to me, and here we have easily one of his five best performances to date. He creates a fully three dimensional character, one who has complicated feelings about race, among other things. Even when the script doesn’t always flesh out the nuances like it should, Costner raises it up and makes you believe that this is a real person. He’s vulnerable and shows his age in a way we’ve never seen from him before. It’s really quite a good performance, especially in a courtroom scene where he makes a big speech. It sounds like it’s cliched, but it really isn’t, particularly in how it fleshes out Costner’s character. Both his chemistry with young Jillian Estell and his sparring with Octavia Spencer are highlights too. Estell manages not to be your standard issue child actor, while Spencer is the firecracker she often is, just here with an added maternal instinct to boot. While Costner initially feels like the one the film is rooting for, there are times when Spencer really makes you think differently. Anthony Mackie is very strong too, though he’s a bit under utilized. Andre Holland is fine, but his character arc goes off the rails in the third act. Jennifer Ehle is mostly a cameo, while comedian Bill Burr shows some solid dramatic chops as Costner’s colleague/friend. Also on hand are Gillian Jacobs, Mpho Koaho, and Paula Newsome, among others, but it’s Costner’s show. No question about that.
Mike Binder is at his best when he’s dealing with lighter moments (with a few exceptions), so some of the dramatic turns in Black or White don’t work nearly as well as in The Upside of Anger, or even in Reign Over Me. At the same time though, the courtroom sequences he stages here are top notch, so there’s definite growth on that end. His direction is crisp and unfussy, as per the usual for Binder, though that’s what this really needs, so you can focus on the strong performances. His writing is a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes really on point and giving his cast tons to work with, while other times shooting them in the foot a little bit instead. It’s far from Binder’s most successful movie, but it’s hardly in his bottom tier either. He does deserve credit for trying something new, which hopefully will lead to more work from the talented filmmaker in the near future.
In the end, Black or White is a small drama that wants to tackle big issues, but works best as a character study and acting showcase for Costner. Fans of his, as well as those of Spencer, will enjoy their back and forth, I have no doubt. While there are some missteps, Binder and company have their hearts in the right place. Without Costner, I’m not sure I’d be recommending this, but with him, Black or White definitely works.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!