Black or White, which went into wide-release on Friday, January 30, is the story of a grandfather, Elliot (Kevin Costner), who loses his wife in a car accident, and is then forced to fight off a custody battle for the granddaughter they’d raised since birth from her other grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer).
I saw the film last weekend in a Harlem theater with my African-American husband.
In case you’re not familiar with the actors and characters of Black or White, Costner is white, Spencer is black, and (like my children) the little girl in question is biracial. Her birth was the result of an affair Elliot’s now dead 17-year-old daughter had with Rowena’s drug-dealing, deadbeat 23-year-old son Reggie (Andre Holland).
During the course of the film, Reggie comes back into little Eloise’s (Jillian Estell) life, claiming to be clean and taking over the custody suit, himself. But, it doesn’t matter. The movie is stacked so squarely on Costner’s side that it’s amazing the judge (played by a scene-stealing Paula Newsome) even considers the case, at all. She actually says as much at the first hearing.
Eloise has lived all eight of her years with her mother’s parents. Tellingly, she calls both grandmothers "Grandma," but calls her grandfather, "Papa." The man is presented, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, as her father, and he is a perfectly decent one. (The script stretches a drinking problem that’s cured by some diligent learning of French to suggest there’s a single, easily resolvable issue on which to challenge his parenting).
But what about that pesky race issue in the movie title? Isn’t that what this movie is really about? Is a little African-American girl really better off being raised by “an old white man,” as her grandmother calls him, instead of her black grandmother and the large, extended family she (we’re told she runs six different businesses out of her garage) is supporting at her home in South Central Los Angeles?
Spencer hires her brother (Anthony Mackie), a high-powered corporate attorney (apparently, in this world, family law practitioners don’t exist, as Costner is represented by a friend who is also a corporate lawyer) to plead her case, and he’s the one who decides to pursue the racial angle at the expense of all others.
Because, really, what else is there, according to Black or White?
To find out, read the rest of my post on BlogHer Entertainment, where I explain all the issues they missed - age, class, gender - and compare the movie to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (It's not a compliment): http://www.blogher.com/where-s-gray-black-or-white