Starring: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Anthony Mackie, Andre Holland
Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language, Thematic Material involving Drug Use and Drinking, and for a Fight
The biggest strength of "Black or White," the new film from Mike Binder, is that it doesn't take sides. The story centers on a custody battle over a mixed-race child, but Binder presents it with sympathy from both sides. No one is truly good or bad, and neither resorts to dirty tricks or dick moves to win. In fact, they're less aggressive than their legal teams.
Elliot Anderson (Costner) is raising his granddaughter Eloise (Estell) with his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle). His daughter died during childbirth and Eloise's father is a drug-addict who is out of the picture. But Carol is killed in a car accident, and Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Spencer) thinks that the girl would be better off living with her. Elliot disagrees, and because neither is willing to share custody, both end up in court to see who gets custody of Eloise.
This is a complicated story, and Binder never pretends that it isn't. While Binder has softened some of the material to make it less grim than it might otherwise be, that doesn't come at the expense of its intelligence or even-handed nature. We see the case from both sides of the fence. Both Elliot and Rowena have their faults (he's an alcoholic while she is very stubborn, and both of them have tempers that cause them to say things they shouldn't), they are essentially good people. Through everything, they remain on good terms, and that is what sets this apart from most other dramas of this kind.
After his career as Hollywood's leading man imploded after the disaster that was "Waterworld," Costner has become a character actor. He's still more than capable of headlining a film, but he's acting his age. He's also been able to stretch his acting muscles and become a better performer. This isn't his best performance, but he's nonetheless effective. Likewise, Octavia Spencer gets a rare chance to headline a film, something that she is also capable of. Known primarily for her feisty characters and comic timing, Spencer shows real aptitude for drama. The two work well together, and their relationship is believable. Also worth mentioning is Jillian Estell, who makes a sparkling theatrical debut (in fact, it can be argued that she gives the best performance in the film).
Not only is the film even-handed, it's perceptive too. While sometimes the film gets a little melodramatic, it is rescued by what is going in the film and how the characters deal with it. Everything that happens is more or less believable, and that makes the film consistently engaging. I don't know whether Binder has been in this situation or not, but it rings true.
I would have like to have seen more of Rowena's character. Rowena is not a bad person, but the film is presented from Elliot's point of view (not surprising, considering Costner paid for the whole thing himself...not to mention his notorious ego). It's a solid movie as it is, but presenting it from a neutral position would have given the film more power.
This isn't a movie that's going to bring in a lot of money at the box office. The subject matter may turn off some people because it sounds too grim (which it isn't...there's plenty of low-key humor in the film) or too personal, but it deserves to be seen.