Selma wasn't the only film about race to get short shrift from Oscar voters this past year. Black or White is a frank, touching and well-acted melodrama about child custody and cultural perceptions of "blackness" and "the race card," and it could have earned Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner fresh Oscar nominations.
Mike Binder's latest teaming with Costner (The Upside of Anger) has more anger, mixed with alcoholism and a bitterness that might mask racism.
Elliot Anderson (Costner) tells his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), "We had a bad night last night." Turns out, the little girl's grandmother died. Granddad's been drinking pretty much ever since.
A couple of days pass, with him drinking and driving her to school and stumbling through tying a ribbon in her hair. She needs him to ease off the sauce, to be tough with her, the way grandma was. He needs to remember to make her brush her teeth.
"Say it like you mean it," the 7-year-old pleads.
Eloise is of mixed race. Her mom's gone and her dad, who is black, isn't in the picture. But those phone messages Elliot is ignoring? Not returning that call is going to cost him.
Grandma Rowena (she goes by "Wee Wee") wants to see her grandchild. Elliot has kept them apart, and his reassurances "Come by any time you like" aren't sincere. Wee Wee (Spencer) has a brother (Anthony Mackie) who is, like Elliot, a high-powered corporate attorney. The custody fight to come will be about "support, community, history." She thinks her not-quite-in-law isn't raising the kid "black" enough.
"She's not black!" he counters. "She's half black!"
Binder and Costner soften whatever racial attitudes Elliot keeps under wraps, between drinks. Elliot hires a math tutor (what he really needs help with is combing her hair), and the tutor is an African overachiever (Mpho Koaho) who becomes ever-drunk Elliot's driver and comical confidante.
The script sets us up to buy into stereotypes, then flips those on their head. The rich suburbanite isn't some cross-burner, although we start to wonder. And Wee Wee might live in South Central Los Angeles with a vast brood of kids and grandkids surrounding her, but she's a successful entrepreneur. Her son (Andre Holland) seems like a crack-smoking cliché, but Spencer's innate intelligence and fight make Wee Wee a nurturer: upbeat, positive, even if one of her kids is a bad apple.
Binder's film decidedly tilts toward his (white) point of view, but the games he plays with expectations are fun: a black female judge (Paula Newsome) who stares down the outspoken Wee Wee in court, the conservative white guy who rolls into South Central with the ultra of rapper rides, a black Escalade. As with Anger, Binder's characters fire off glib, politically incorrect insults, and characters make some pretty solid arguments in favor of their political incorrectness.
Maybe it plays it too safe, and Costner should have found more testy edge to this guy, just to make us uncertain about his darkest feelings. But Black or White makes an entertaining movie for a post-Obama America, a smartly observed story that recognizes that we might never be a post-racial America.