Sometimes the intended message of a film is stronger than the film itself. And sometimes the unintended message is even stronger than that. “Black or White” is one such case, one film that more than fails to live up to its potential.
The film opens with Elliot (Kevin Costner) at the hospital, having just learned that his wife (Jennifer Ehle) has perished in a sudden car accident. Elliot returns home and drinks himself into a fog, rising only when approached by his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), the product of his deceased daughter and her ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend, Reggie (Andre Holland).
Withholding the devastating news from Eloise at first, Elliot performs the morning tasks usually confined to the granddaughter-and-grandmother relationship: He urges her to brush her teeth, attempts to comb her unruly hair, ties her bow, and takes her to the school grounds, watching as she taps her hand over her heart, urging him to participate in the same ritual.
At the wake, we meet Rowena (Octavia Spencer), Eloise’s paternal grandmother. Her family is boisterous and loud, in sharp contrast to Elliot’s quiet life, manicured lawn, large swimming pool, and grand house. Rowena begins wondering if Eloise would be better off with her side of the family, and the battle begins. Should Eloise be allowed to stay with her grandfather, who her uncle Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) asserts has a decided “problem with black people,” or be raised by her father’s side of the family?
While both Rowena and Elliot recognize the other’s good intentions and love for their granddaughter, a stumbling block appears in Reggie, Eloise’s biological father, who seems to embody every single negative stereotype associated with black America. He is a drug addict and a deadbeat who seems more interested in hitting up Elliot for money than in reconciling with his young daughter. It is here that the film really takes a dive off the deep end (and this metaphor is apt, considering the time and attention taken in establishing pool imagery and metaphors: Elliot hosts Rowena’s large family in a happy mid-court-case pool party where Eloise meets her long-lost father, Elliot and Reggie have altercations beside the pool, Elliot solitarily chugs whiskey while sitting by the pool, Elliot even finds himself in the midst of a true-to-life engagement with his dead wife while at the bottom of the pool).
I am still not sure what I was supposed to come away from the film feeling. Both sides resort to tactics that leave us with a less-than-pleasant impression of them. When Jeremiah first convinces his sister that to win the custody battle they must paint Elliot as being prejudiced, Rowena’s face gives away the truth: She knows this is wrong. She knows fighting this way is dirty, but she did it anyway.
In the same vein, Elliot, who is tolerant and respectful of Rowena even if he’s not especially fond of her, is convinced way too easily by his fellow lawyers to play an underhanded game.
So, as I say, I wasn’t sure what to feel, I wasn’t sure what to think, and I am not sure I learned anything. Even though Elliot and Rowena ultimately have Eloise’s interests at heart, I am unsure that she wasn’t just a pawn in a game that had to be won at any cost. What was really won here? It’s difficult to know. Anyone hoping for an engaging and cerebral court scene, a la Atticus Finch, to settle the case once and for all will have to make do with a confrontation between Reggie and Elliott, both high on their substances of choice (crack cocaine for Reggie, hard liquor for Elliot), and laced with racial stereotypes.
This is ironic, because the film seems well-intentioned about trying to debunk such stereotypes (on the witness stand, Elliot asserts that Reggie’s being a crack addict has nothing to do with race), and yet it perpetuates them left, right, and center. Elliot is the rich white lawyer with privileged problems; Reggie is the son of an overworked matriarch who raises her kids and their kids with sass and quick quips while running a real estate business out of her garage on the “other” side of town. While biracial Eloise attends a fancy private school, and benefits from the tutelage of the rather comically charming Duvan (Mpho Koaho), survivor of a horrendous faraway war and the emblem of the resilient spirit of so many, her cousins and uncles and aunts play “soul” music and live next door to a rundown house complete with ample garbage bins (good for throwing people into) and pot-smoking hoodlums.
Perhaps that is the unintentional takeaway from the film: our blindness. Our ability to see the speck in a brother’s eye when we have a plank in our own. Elliot admits that in his immediate recognition of color of skin he is “mildly flawed”; I assert as a society we are greatly flawed. We stumble and we fall short of the glory of the One who would sew us up together as His children. Muddled in theme and exposition and rich in stereotype, “Black or White” just demonstrates that at our core, without grace, we are likely to run into the same problems over and over again.
(Warning: There is use of the “n”-word, which, while used contextually, does little more than leave a bad taste in our mouths, rather than asserting a strong statement.)
Image copyright Relativity Media. “Black or White” is rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight.
Rachel McMillan is a novelist in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.