Films that deal with race issues need sensitivity, intelligence and understanding because any slant to the cultural, emotional and political elements deprives the audience of being able to make up their own minds.
Mike Binder, director and writer of “Black or White,” manages to find dead center with this story — based on real events — of two families who believe their world is the best place for a young girl. It’s a slight variation on the nature vs. nurture argument.
Binder’s ability to make smart arguments for both sides of the issue, without becoming overly sentimental, gives “Black or White” a solid foundation. Then, Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer — who represent each side of the debate — take over and deliver solid performances that give the film passion and life.
When Carol (Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a car accident, her husband, Elliot, (Kevin Costner) faces the prospect of raising his 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) by himself. The grandparents assumed custody of their granddaughter when their daughter died in child birth.
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The drug-addicted father, Reggie, (Andre Holland) has never been in the picture because he was in jail.
Even though Elliot is much more financially capable of taking care of the girl, his drinking problem is a major concern to Reggie’s mother, Rowena (Spencer). She suggests it might be better if Eloise lived with her, where she has a large, loving family and a chance to better explore her racial heritage.
What starts out as a family feud eventually leads to a showdown in court.
Binder’s script keeps making solid arguments for both sides. Through the skilled work of Costner and Spencer, the discussions don’t sound like the much-rehearsed work of a debate team. They carry an emotional charge that’s as powerful as it is thought provoking.
Binder doesn’t take the predictable approach of having the two sides of the family tree divided by racism. Elliot is greeted with open arms in Rowena’s house. Binder keeps the story focused on human elements that are universal to all races. The race issue isn’t ignored; it’s just secondary to the kind of love and affection family members have for each other.
Both Costner and Spencer turn in solid performances. The big surprise is Jillian Estell. Child actors can make or break a movie and this young actress creates the strong pivotal point necessary for this story to work.
Binder doesn’t force her into being some all-knowing youth who spouts wisdom beyond her years. She’s played as a young girl who enjoys the love and attention she gets from both sides of her family. That makes it easy to understand why both sides are fighting so vehemently for custody.
The movie is not without its flaws, such as Costner’s unconvincing portrayal of an alcoholic or that the girl’s father is a stereotype. But it’s easier to overlook such stumbles when the overall effort is solid.
Strong performances mixed with a smart script by Binder makes “Black or White” a balanced and provocative look at race issues. Any film that has the potential to spark conversations while being entertaining has accomplished a major task.