|Image courtesy of Relativity Media.|
As the film opens, lawyer Elliot Anderson has just lost his wife (Jennifer Ehle, only seen in brief flashbacks), to a car crash. She had been acting as a parent to their mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), who gives one of the better child performances as of late. Elliot's daughter - and Eloise's mother - died in childbirth and the young girl's father (Andre Holland), a former junkie and thief, has long been out of the picture.
But Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), a successful realtor who lives with her large family in South Central, believes that Eloise needs to know both sides of her family, so she tells Elliot that she would be better equipped to raising the girl than he would.
It's a tricky situation - Elliot has taken a leave from work (which he can afford) to raise Eloise and his dedication is obvious. But Elliot is also sort of an alcoholic. He tells Rowena, who could certainly provide the motherly attention Eloise needs, that he wants to keep custody of the child because she attends a school near their home in an affluent neighborhood and is getting a great education. And without question, Elliot hates Eloise's father, whom he blames for his daughter's death, and tells Rowena that he intends to keep Eloise as far away from him as possible.
The debate over the girl's custody quickly turns acrimonious and Rowena - with the help of her brother (Anthony Mackie), a hotshot attorney - she files a custody suit. Mackie's character argues that the best way to prevent Elliot from getting custody of Eloise is to allude to his drinking problem and argue that he has racist tendencies, although that last line of argument does not immediately appear to have any basis in fact.
"Black or White" aims to contribute meaningful thoughts on America's race relations dialogue, which is certainly to be commended. The film has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately makes some missteps that threaten to unravel the whole thing.
For starters, there's a sequence during which Jeremiah (Mackie) chides Reggie (Holland) on his irresponsible behavior toward his child, drug abuse and past criminal record, which includes assault, drug possession and robbery. He tells Reggie that he's a "walking cliche" that will only provide fuel to Elliot's attorney's case and give credence to the stereotype of young black males from rough neighborhoods.
So, it's unfortunate then that the filmmakers decide to resort to cliches when depicting the picture's black characters. Spencer does a fine job in her role as the spunky Rowena, but was it really necessary to make her character shout out her feelings to the judge during the film's courtroom scenes, giving the whole thing the appearance of being on a daytime talk show? Also, Reggie is clearly a troubled person and there's a scene late in the film during which he and Elliot have a confrontation that helps to endorse a stereotype from which a film of this type would seemingly want to steer clear.
And, finally, there's another sequence during which Costner's character uses a racial slur that's a bit shocking, considering all that has come before. It only appears to be included in the film so that his character can actually give one of the more thoughtful speeches late in the movie during which he argues - in court - that the first thought that comes to a person's mind when meeting someone of a different race, creed, what-have-you is not as important as the second or third thought.
There are some other good moments in the film, especially one in which Reggie's drug abuse is rightfully paralleled to Elliot's alcoholism.
Perhaps the best piece of dialogue occurs early on when Elliot goes to Rowena's house to confront her about the lawsuit. She accuses him of not wanting to expose Eloise to "the black people" in the family, to which he replies, "Why must you always go there?" She answers back, "Because you won't admit that there's a there there." Now, that could have been an interesting starting point for a movie on race relations. If only that concept had been explored, rather than being unceremoniously dropped thereafter.
As I said, "Black or White" has good intentions, even though it doesn't exactly fulfill its ambitions.