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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 12:01 am

Black or White a flawed but noble look at race

Jillian Estell as Eloise and Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson in Black or White.
PHOTOS COURTESY Relativity Media

 

Much like American Sniper, Mike Binder’s Black or White is likely to draw a disparate number of responses, interpretations and criticisms as it deals with the issue of race relations, a subject in which people are passionate about to such a degree that they’re eager to share their views, which are often fixed and unalterable. Whereas Selma deals with racial divide in the United States in the 1960s, Black attempts to examine it as it is today, at least from the perspective of Binder, who wrote and directed the film and happens to be white. I point this out to underscore that the movie is simply his point-of-view on race seen from his vantage point. I don’t think it’s meant to be a definitive commentary on the issue but rather a vehicle through which to open a healthy dialogue on the subject.

Kevin Costner, who invested $9 million in the film, gives one of his finest performances as Elliot Anderson, a barely functioning alcoholic whose world is turned upside down. The sudden death of his wife leaves him alone to raise their mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell, charming and natural), which they’ve been doing since their daughter – the girl’s mother – died in childbirth and her father Reggie (Andre Holland) has gone MIA due to a recurring drug problem. Clueless at first, Anderson ultimately gets the hang of combing out and tying ribbons in his granddaughter’s hair and finding the proper tone to get her to brush her teeth. However, Eloise’s other grandmother Rowena (a very good Octavia Spencer) soon demands custody of the child, having enlisted her son Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie, strong as usual), a high-priced lawyer, to take the case.

While you’ll likely be able to see where this story is headed, there are plenty of surprises along the way as Binder doesn’t shrink from dealing with the issue at hand. We witness Anderson’s behavior around African-Americans, hear him speak honestly about them in the privacy of his own home and is finally forced to discuss racism openly in court when he’s called to testify during the custody trial. He’s far from a raving bigot, but is honest in how he perceives people of color both initially and after he comes to know them. That his view is tinged by the fact that a shiftless, drug-addled black man impregnated his underage daughter, alienating her from him in the process, certainly doesn’t help.

Binder seems to be playing with fire here as Reggie comes off as a cliché, yet he undercuts that when Jeremiah himself admonishes him for being a “perfect stereotype.” However, there’s a method to this madness as the director makes a correlation between Anderson and Reggie to make a point. While both struggle with addiction, the older white man has been able to thrive despite his alcoholism (he’s a successful lawyer), while the younger black man has been hobbled and marginalized because of his affliction.

It’s unfortunate that Binder is his own worst enemy. While it’s obvious his intentions are sound, never more so during the scene with Anderson’s testimony which features one of the most honest expressions about the race issue I’ve seen in a film, there are other moments that are as false as this is sincere. The film’s climax between Anderson and Reggie is ridiculous and contrived, featuring a sequence that’s so obviously a plot device that I groaned while watching it. That Binder wasn’t able to recognize this speaks to his need for a collaborator.

Yet despite its uneven quality, Binder and Costner must be commended for even broaching the subject of modern race relations, an issue as thorny and potentially volatile as it’s ever been. And while others might object to some of Black’s “too-good-to-be-true” elements, it’s important to remember that examples of how we hope life can be must be put on display if we ever wish to achieve them.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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