31 January 2015 | CleveMan66
"Black or White" is a well-titled, important and entertaining film.
In late 1991, Michael Jackson released a song calling attention to the need for racially harmony. The lyrics repeat the sentence: "It don't matter if you're black or white." Although the movie that shares the song's title doesn't use or reference MJ's number 1 hit, "Black or White" (PG-13, 2:01) very effectively reinforces the song's message with a story that's both a pleasure to watch and very timely.
Kevin Costner stars as Elliott Anderson, an L.A. attorney who, with his wife, was raising their bi-racial granddaughter, Eloise (the delightful Jillian Estelle). Eloise's mother / Elliott's daughter died in child birth at the age of 17 and the 23-year-old boyfriend who got her pregnant promptly disappeared. Now, Elliott's beloved wife is killed in a car accident and Eloise's care falls to Elliott. Eloise is a happy 7-year-old who has a very close relationship with her grandfather, but her surviving grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer) feels that Eloise is missing out. Rowena is a real estate agent and entrepreneur who lives with her large family live in Compton. Rowena and her family are welcome in Elliott's home, but that's not enough for Rowena. She feels that Eloise needs a mother's love (or at least a feminine touch), more regular contact with the rest of her family and a stronger connection with her racial heritage, things that Rowena feels Elliott cannot provide. In a sense, Rowena is right. Elliott hires a math tutor (Mpho Koaho) who becomes a big part of Elliott and Eloise's life, and Elliott takes some time off of work, but at the end of the day, he's basically raising Eloise by himself. It's a very tough time for Elliott (and Eloise), but also for Rowena and her family, who miss the little girl. Both sides of Eloise's family love her dearly and want what's best for her – although they disagree on exactly what that is.
When Elliott refuses Rowena's suggestion of shared custody of Eloise, Rowena decides to sue for full custody. Rowena's brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), is also an attorney and has agreed to represent Rowena in her custody case. At the same time, Elliott's law firm is representing him in his fight to keep his granddaughter with him. For her part, Eloise wants to stay where she is, but the growing tension around her is causing her significant stress – and some confusion. As complicated as this situation already is, Elliott and Rowena each have issues that work against their cases – and what's best for Eloise. Elliott drinks – a lot (even using Eloise's math tutor as his driver at times), but there is some question as to whether Elliott is actually an alcoholic. On the other side, as the custody battle is just heating up, Rowena welcomes her prodigal son, Reggie (Andre Holland) back in to her home and changes her custody petition so that Reggie is actually the one fighting for custody. Reggie is the girl's father, but he has a criminal past which includes drug use, which Reggie keeps insisting is no longer a problem. Rowena loves her son, but seems to place an undue amount of faith in his character and his potential. Compounding these challenges is the fact that Elliott and Rowena each have a blind spot regarding these problems of theirs. Both sides also have to struggle against the prejudices that each has toward the other, prejudices which they may not even fully appreciate themselves.
"Black or White" is a very good title for a very good movie. Considering recent racially-charged court cases, it's an especially timely movie – and one that hints at a solution to these issues. Having two Oscar winners (Costner and Spencer) as the main characters gives the film gravitas and Mike Binder's script and direction make for a movie that plays fair with both sides and all characters. This film is an opportunity for all audience members to reflect on their own prejudices and whether or not, in the final analysis, many of the racially inflammatory issues of our times should even be a question of "black or white". This film, like Michael Jackson's song, imagines a world in which people are judged, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s words "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The story's resolution may be a bit simplistic, but also shows us that we, as individuals and as a society, don't have to regard every issue that divides us as a case of winners and losers, black or white. This movie is well-deserving of a look – and at least a little post-multiplex contemplation – no matter if you're
well, regardless of your race. For an effective, heartfelt, occasionally humorous and entertaining exploration of one of the most important issues of our time, I give this one an "A-".