Conceptually, Black or White brings up a potent topic in the relationship between race and family. Anchored with a talented cast led by Oscar winners Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, and arriving at a time where race relations are a hot topic of discussion, the film comes packaged with the potential to draw in audiences and present a compelling story. Unfortunately, Black or White is riddled with issues that prevent it from offering that compelling story.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without mentioning that writer/director Mike Binder is white. I mention this because I believe it’s a key factor in this film’s vantage point, which ultimately answers the choice presented by the title by choosing “white.”
The film opens with Elliot (Costner) in the hospital, where his wife has just died from injuries sustained in a car accident. He returns home to granddaughter Eloise, who was taken in by the couple after their daughter died in childbirth. It’s made clear pretty quickly that as much as he may love his granddaughter, his wife was the one who served as the close parental figure and knew the little things like how to brush Eloise’s hair. The death brings around Rowena (Spencer), Eloise’s paternal grandmother, who wants to bring Eloise into her larger family through joint custody. Elliot tolerates Rowena and her family, but has an undisguised contempt for Eloise’s father, Reggie, who he blames for his daughter’s demise, and refuses to entertain the thought of joint custody. Rowena then decides to file for sole custody of Eloise, and her brother/lawyer, Jeremiah, pushes for a narrative that paints Elliot as a racist.
The setup isn’t the film’s issue. Both sides offer advantages and disadvantages On one side, there’s Elliot and the relative stability and class privilege that would come with Eloise remaining with him, which is tempered by his increasing reliance on alcohol. On the other is Rowena, who can provide Eloise with a larger family and a cultural connection she lacks with Elliot, even if the threat of Reggie hangs over Rowena and her family.
The issue is how the two sides are portrayed. Outside of his drinking, Elliot is portrayed as a saint. Mostly. He takes an immediate interest in caring for Eloise, hiring a tutor when he feels he can’t sufficiently help Eloise with her homework and taking time off work to be with her. The contempt he feels for Reggie is understandable, and the deaths of Elliot’s daughter and wife appear to be the fuel for Elliot’s drinking. There’s no denying, though, the severity of Elliot’s drinking throughout the film. It eventually pushes Eloise away from him, and at a particularly low point finds Elliot dropping a particular epithet in Reggie’s face.
Meanwhile, Rowena has a more mixed presentation. She’s loud and brash, and unafraid to speak her mind – whether the setting is appropriate or not. She’s able to provide for her extended family, owning three homes and operating six businesses to employ family members. She has a big heart, certainly, but there’s a question of whether she can reasonably take on another family member. Moreover, she wants Eloise to be present to help provide Reggie stability. When Reggie enters the picture, he claims to be clean, and Rowena believes him. Elliot does not, and with good reason.
Watching the film, it’s clear that neither Elliot and Rowena are ideal guardians, and that’s fine. But the film is still weighed in favor of Elliot in a way that removes some of the complexity the film could provide, even though his drinking could reasonably be dangerous to Eloise. By staying so firmly in favor of Elliot, the film ultimately falls into a binary suggested by the title, one that robs the film of the potentially compelling material that could come from the gray.