Actor Kevin Costner reteams with filmmaker Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me) for the drama Black or White, an “inspired by true events” custody battle between members of an extended mixed race family. It’s every bit as manipulative as it sounds, but it works more often than it fails.
Alcoholic lawyer Elliott (Costner) now has to look after his black granddaughter (delightful newcomer Jillian Estell) following the sudden death of his wife and the fact that his daughter died during childbirth. The girl’s birth father was a crackhead that split and only ever resurfaced to beg for cash, but the boy’s mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), blindly still thinks he has the potential to do good despite no evidence to the contrary. Wanting her daughter to come with her to South Central Los Angeles to “be with her blood,” the grandmother files for sole custody of the child. He’s an uppity privileged drunk with a heart of gold. She’s an almost irredeemably smug bully towards him, and she’s pretty much looked down upon by her own family (including her lawyer brother, played with an ample amount of believable frustration and familial loyalty by Anthony Mackie), but at least she can notice he doesn’t have his shit together.
For everything interesting that Binder has to say about racial inequality and how we can all be flawed assholes that are still worthy of redemption, he almost undoes them with cutesy sequences of kids being precocious and comic relief subplots involving a tutor hired by Costner to help his kid with math and cart his ass around while he’s drunk. It doesn’t help much that Spencer’s character is so unquestionably loathsome that it’s hard to root for anyone other than the drunk misanthrope. It’s a tale of two jerks locked into a battle neither should win.
Conversely, Binder’s approach to such potent leading character is to make sure that each has something useful and relevant to say about the state of their cultures. Elliott knows nothing about preserving any kind of cultural heritage, and perhaps more importantly very little about raising a young girl. Rowena seems loving to a fault, with the way she coddles her son creating the biggest problems in the film.
Once the climactic courtroom sequences take centre stage, the film threatens to go off the rails, saved mainly by the professionalism of the actors involved. A scene in the final act involving Elliot’s final confrontation with his grandchild’s daddy is particularly inexcusable in terms of how much Binder is taking a baseball bat to the heartstrings, but it rights itself by giving everything a proper conclusion.
Still, given that final third (especially a tense showdown at Elliott’s house) I severely doubt those “inspired by true events” claims.