The cultural, political and emotional elements of “Black or White” couldn’t be any clearer. The film questions whether it’s better for a child from a mixed race union to grow up in a world of financial stability or one where she’s exposed more to family and culture.
While the questions might be clear, the answers are far less obvious. That’s the reason star Kevin Costner believed in the project so much and put in his own money to make the movie.
“I was hoping somebody else would put up the money but when they didn’t, I knew this movie had to be made,” Costner says. “I didn’t want the movie to be made just because it had a big message. I wanted this film to be a jump-off spot for conversations.”
Costner was adamant: The hot-topic issues about race are not softened.
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He credits director Mike Binder with creating a script that took race elements that are often hard to discuss and attacked them without pause. That meant some tough language and emotional battles for the entire cast.
Costner had worked with Binder on the 2005 feature “The Upside of Anger,” another story of family and change. Over the years, Binder had sent Costner four other scripts that he turned down. He began to worry that the pipeline between the pair might dry up before the right script was presented.
As soon as he started reading “Black or White,” he knew they would work together, even if he had to pay for the movie.
The film’s built around the 7-year-old played by Jillian Estell. She’s the reason for the battle between her grandparents. Binder looked at more than 1,000 young actresses before finding Jillian.
Costner spent a lot of time rehearsing with Jillian before filming started. He knew the only way the film would work is if they looked comfortable together.
What he didn’t expect was how natural their bond would become.
“There’s an electric moment in the movie where she suddenly reaches up, touches my face and gives me a kiss. That was all improvised by her and made for an amazing moment,” Costner says.
Despite being a film designed to spark conversations, Costner says that the movie still has a very entertaining feel. Part of that comes from touches of humor along the way.
Costner has no problem with lighter moments — he knows in real life it’s OK to laugh even during heavy emotional moments.
“Our laughter is more empathy for my character. It’s like ‘wow.’ I didn’t want jokes but the humor to come out of life that’s lived. This is a guy who’s struggling and we emphasize that,” Costner says. “He’s doing his best. But this guy can’t drop his anger and his addiction. We laugh because it’s real.”
The pain and suffering his character felt was hard to play. Costner was driven by his hopes that it might help someone who is really having these discussions.
“I pick every script the same way whether I’m doing a western, comedy or love story,” Costner says. “I pick a script because it has something to say.”
His next film, “McFarland, USA,” examines both as he plays a cross country coach who builds a winning team in the small California community.
Costner felt a deep connection to the script because, for a short time when he was a teen, he lived in Visalia, a community less than an hour away from McFarland. He remembers competing against the high school.