Black or White

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

(2014) Drama (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Indigo, Bertha Bindewald, Joe Chrest, Ireyon Johnson, Janeline Hayes, Lloyd Dillon, Ernest Wells, Angela Jones, David Jensen, John McConnell, Robert Larriviere, Lindsey G. Smith. Directed by Mike Binder

In many ways, race is the central issue for America not only in the 20th century but sadly into the 21st as well. It informs many of the political struggles that have been going on. After all, do you think that there would be quite the push for the strengthening of gun owner rights if there wasn’t a white fear of young black men? While some things are better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to assert voting rights for the African-American citizens of this country, for the most part things are sadly, drearily, depressingly the same.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is barely coping with life. His wife (Ehle) has just passed away in an auto accident. He’s lost but he can’t afford to be; he has a granddaughter to raise. Eloise (Estell) entered the world under difficult circumstances; her mom, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth and her dad, Reggie Davis (Holland), a raging drug addict, wasn’t fit or interested to be a father. Elliot has a lot of issues with Reggie, blaming him for a lot of things some of them deserved, some not.

Rowena (Spencer) is Reggie’s mom and she’s very sympathetic to Elliot’s plight but in some ways not. She wants to be closer to her granddaughter, understandably and especially now but Elliot is struggling with this. He respects Rowena although he doesn’t really like her much, believing she has a blind spot when it comes to her son. Rowena, frustrated by Elliot’s intransigence, consults her brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Mackie), a high-powered lawyer who sues Elliot for custody of Eloise on Rowena’s behalf.

Eloise is confused by all of this; she loves her grandfather very much but she also loves her Gramma Wee-Wee, as she calls Rowena. However left to her own devices, the seven-year-old would want to stay with the man who’s been around her all her life. Not that anyone’s asking her, of course.

But Rowena has ulterior motives. She sees Eloise as an opportunity to save her son; surely once he is given the chance to be a dad, he’ll step up to the plate. Elliot will do anything to keep this from happening; however, the case is far from open and shut. You see, Elliot has another friend; it’s the bottle and he has climbed into it hard after his wife’s untimely passing.

So with Reggie sniffing around, Elliot getting paranoid and Rowena becoming increasingly unsure that she wants to use Jeremiah’s bulldog tactics which paint Elliot as a racist alcoholic, even if it is true – which it only is half-true. What is going on is a struggle between a man who has lost everything and a desperate mother with a little girl caught in the middle.

This is the type of movie that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and veteran Mike Binder would appear to be those hands, but frankly he doesn’t pull it off. Instead of making this a powerfully emotional film that acts as a lens on modern race relations, Binder instead goes for the easy answers with an ending that absolutely wipes out any credibility the movie might have had.

Costner was particularly motivated, financing the production himself for the most part. This is a much more layered role for him; he tends to play fairly easy-going guys who have a penchant for doing the right things although often his characters have a checkered past. His immense likability helps make this movie charming, despite the fact that his character isn’t doing a lot of charming things, showing up so blotto that he can barely stand at times and using the N-word when confronting Reggie. He also has a speech during the courtroom proceedings which while I think it gets to the heart of what the movie is trying to get across, damages Elliot’s case significantly.

Elliot sees his wife in (often) alcohol-induced flashbacks and certainly they make it clear that she was his rock, leaving him floundering in her absence. It is telling that we only get to see his wife in flashback; his daughter, with whom he was estranged and seems to be much angrier about, never appears in any sort of flashback. Clearly Elliot hasn’t forgiven her yet.

Fortunately Costner isn’t alone. Spencer has blossomed into one of the most dependable actresses in Hollywood; ever since making her splash in The Help she hasn’t delivered one performance that has been anything less than fantastic. Mackie is also a terrific actor who is terrific here as well. There are a couple of relative newcomers here however who deliver fine performances; comedian Bill Burr who as Elliot’s partner gets a couple of dramatic sequences, and young Jillian Estell who carries herself extremely well for an actress this young. Something has to be done about that hand grenade hair though; it’s distracting.

With an opportunity to make a really important film on race relations, the writers and filmmakers instead go the safe route, substituting cliche for insight. That makes this relatively easy to digest and certainly free of controversy. In this way it doesn’t offend anyone, but the movies that invite the most discussion and in some cases actually make the most difference socially speaking are the ones that are offensive to at least someone. If you’re going to have Kevin Costner utter the “N word” at a young African-American man, you might as well not squander the opportunity by being timid in all other aspects but unfortunately that’s exactly what this movie does.

REASONS TO GO: Costner at his likable best in a more layered role than he usually gets. Spencer, Mackie, Burr and (surprisingly) Estell are all strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable throughout. The ending is a whopper that really derails the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drunkenness, intimations of drug use, a fight and some occasional strong language as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Harris, who was Costner’s personal friend and his first manager. Harris passed away in 2013.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kramer vs. Kramer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Strange Magic

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