We Try Not to Gush Too Much Over Black or White
- Susan Ellingburg Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated May 08, 2015
Release Date: January 30, 2015
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and a fight
Run Time: 121 minutes
Director: Mike Binder
Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, André Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho
"It's not true," Kevin Costner says about his latest film, "but it's truth." Inspired by a true story, Black or White is one of those rare dramas that doesn't bother to be politically correct or wildly inappropriate in the name of 'humor.' What it does is force its characters—and the audience—to face up to how they really feel about race and each other. Bonus: it tells a riveting story.
Elliot (Costner, Draft Day) and his wife have raised their mixed-race granddaughter all her young life. Neither parent was available (Mom died; Dad's a drug-addicted felon), and as Elliot is a wealthy, powerful attorney, his side of the family had more resources to provide for little Eloise (Jillian Estell). But when Elliot's wife suddenly dies the situation changes. With only alcohol-addled Elliot left to care for the child, Eloise's paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer, The Help) thinks it’s time her granddaughter joined her extended family across town.
These are complicated people whose lives get tangled up in a big mess because they're all trying to "do the right thing." It would be easy for this to turn into a 'rich white guy battles poor black family' story packed with racial stereotypes, but the genius of Black or White is that it doesn't. Rowena (Spencer) is the successful proprietor of a number of businesses. She owns several homes on her block and while they're not the elegant mansion Elliot and Eloise share, they're certainly nice homes. Elliot is not anti-Rowena or (with one exception) her family; he just feels he has more to offer his beloved granddaughter. Their worlds are different but not as much as it might at first appear.
When push comes to shove, both sides have to decide how low they're willing to go to win. It's not an easy decision; at heart both Rowena and Elliot respect each other but at the same time are committed to doing what they see as best for the granddaughter they both love. Chosen from over a thousand contenders for the part, Jillian Estell brightens the screen as Eloise. As Costner said, "If you liked this movie it's because you liked this girl." He even confessed that her unscripted actions in one tender scene resulted in "one of the greatest moments I ever experienced in acting."
Truth be told, everybody in this film is likeable to some extent; we even found ourselves rooting for Eloise's ne'er-do-well father (Andre Holland, Selma). That's what makes this such a good story: it’s so hard to pick sides all you can do is watch and wait to see what happens.
There are some instances of unfortunate language, one in particular that is purposefully shocking but is an important part of the plot. "We weren't afraid to say the words that were said," Costner asserted, and the words are essential not just for the shock value, but to set up a heartfelt speech that comes later. To say more would be a spoiler, but it is certainly effective. While I in no way condone the language, I think this time it's worth setting aside the offense of the words in order to hear the message they have to offer.
There's not a weak link in the cast. While Costner, Spencer, and Estell are standouts, Mpho Koaho's performance as an overachieving tutor deserves a nod. The family court judge (Paula Newsome) was also a delight, especially in her courtroom exchanges—some spoken, some not—with the irrepressible Rowena.
I attended the screening with an audience of many colors. Everyone laughed at the same things. Everyone flinched at the same things. Together, we held our breath at the suspense-filled climax. Near as I could tell, everyone in the room had the same reaction to the film as a whole: we loved it.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: One character is an alcoholic who is often drinking and/or drunk, another is a drug addict. Both issues are discussed at length.
- Language/Profanity: Profanities are scattered through the story, including the n-word, sh** (sometimes defined as “bull”), di**, da** (sometimes combined with God), cr**, as* (sometimes added to “hole”), motherf***er, and Jesus' name used as an expletive
- Sex/Nudity: Elliot spends a lot of time wandering around in his underwear, but it's not revealing in any way. Eloise has a lesbian aunt who lives with her partner across the street from Rowena but the couple is only shown occasionally and not in any sexual situations. There is an awkward kiss (at a funeral) and a rude (but funny) joke about a rectal thermometer.
- Violent/Frightening/Intense: Some tense moments during arguments that involve snarling, kicking, pushing, threatening with a knife, and slapping. One fight is particularly intense.
Publication date: January 29, 2015