Race complicates family matters in ‘Black or White’

Mike Binder and Kevin Costner engage in tough talk

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Jillian Estell as Eloise and Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson in “Black or White”; Rating: R, Grade: C-

What we’re talking about when we talk about race depends on our individual perspectives, but it is not the talking that matters. What truly matters is how willing we are to listen to those other perspectives.

The tricky part of this notion, when it comes to film, is that there are curiously few opportunities for different approaches and viewpoints to emerge on the screen. Much has been made, since the recent Academy Award nominations, about the lack of diversity among the various branches of the Academy, but as an African American, I have always questioned why the onus is placed on minorities alone, to speak out on issues or questions of injustice in society. If we truly are multicultural and emboldened by claims of equal rights, then it is incumbent upon any of us to address our country’s failings and seek redress.

And so, I found myself challenged, during the Toronto International Film Festival, by Mike Binder and his take on race relations, presented in “Black or White” because, in theory, this was exactly what I’ve been waiting for from Hollywood. Here was a white writer and director stepping up to deliver his own personal assessment of our fractured racial dynamics. In addition, Binder gets a significant boost from Kevin Costner (the two previously worked together in the under-rated adult drama “The Upside of Anger” back in 2005) who, despite having retreated from the scene for a few years, has staged a quiet yet potent reminder of his latent star power in the last year and a half.

Costner settles in as Elliot Anderson, a recent widower pummeled by the loss of his wife. Anderson, thanks to his supportive and caring spouse, had enjoyed more of a backseat role in the guardianship of his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), a precocious young girl. Her mother, the Andersons’ daughter, died early on, but was lost to her parents before then due to her drug addiction and the dangerous choices she made with Eloise’s father Reggie (André Holland), an African American man who Elliot blames for his daughter’s decline.

Now alone and leaning heavily on the bottle to soothe his sorrows, Anderson struggles to maintain his standing as a partner in a law firm and caretaker for his granddaughter, while fending off the advances of Reggie’s family, in particular his mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) who believes the girl would be better served in the care of her African American family, away from the seeming rabid racial hostility deeply engrained in Elliot.

Binder, who in interviews during the film’s festival run discussed the impact of personal inspirations for this story, doesn’t make Elliot an easy and obvious hero or a white guilt punching bag. Elliot, for all his success in life, has become an epic drunk (in fact, he is as addicted to alcohol as Reggie is to hard drugs) who is just able to keep himself on the upright side of life and the community. He sees and appreciates the bootstrap work ethic of Rowena and her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), but the simmering racial stew comes to a boil as the two sides faceoff in court over custody of Eloise.

And it is in the final talky battle that Binder makes his case for the soul of Elliot as a white man speaking plainly about his feelings and prejudices. That case is won and lost, unfortunately for me, in much of the initial set-up. There is a bit of subtle deck stacking in the premise that cannot be overlooked because so much attention is focused on Reggie’s stereotypical drug use and the sense that he was the bad influence that led Elliot’s daughter astray. We are inclined to lean towards our negative feelings about Reggie, which means that despite the fact that we watch Elliot drink alcohol in like air and succumb to the most base clichés about race, we are made to appreciate his prejudices.

Amen to Binder for speaking his truth, but I wonder why he felt the need to skew his perspective so much. Why could we not see the more sympathetic side of Reggie? Somehow the drunken white paternal order stands as a better influence than the same-old, same-old knock on black fatherhood. And I’m just not down for that.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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