Friday, January 30, 2015

Zaki's Review: Black or White

Kevin Costner is none too happy with Octavia Spencer
Here's what I said about Kevin Costner when I reviewed his low-key actioner 3 Days to Kill just over a year ago:
Getting older has been good for Kevin Costner. As the one-time Robin Hood's face has grown more creased and weathered with the passage of years, it's allowed him to leave behind some of the trappings of superstardom that first propelled and then constrained him during the '80s and '90s, leading him to the much more fruitful and fulfilling character parts that await all leading men eventually.
I stand by every word of that. In fact, Costner's performance in writer-director Mike Binder's otherwise forgettable melodrama Black or White only helps underscore that earlier point. As an actor, Costner is just imminently watchable. Even in material such as this, that really doesn't measure up to his performance, I can still find a particular joy in just watching his choices as he works through a scene. Nonetheless, just as with 3 Days to Kill, I sometimes wish he'd pick a better variety of projects with which to fill his dance card.

Now, to give Black or White (which Costner himself financed) its due, it does make an honest, earnest try at addressing the considerable racial divide that continues to effect so many facets of life in this country. But unlike, say, last month's Selma, which depicted historical events to offer commentary on our present moment, Binder uses relatively recent history (per a title card, the film is based on true events) to tackle issues of class, race, and the resentments that can power divisions in both. Admirable goals, certainly, but undone by a simplistic, borderline insulting approach that leaves both sides of its argument feeling undernourished.

The film begins with Elliot Anderson (Costner) coming to terms with the sudden death of his wife (Jennifer Ehle), and becoming primary caretaker to his mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), whose mother -- Elliot's daughter -- died during childbirth. This situation becomes more complicated when Eloise's paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) sues Elliot for custody of the girl, believing she'd do better with her black family in South Central than her white grandpa in Beverly Hills. What follows is a two-hours of Do The Right Thing by way of a heavy dose of Kramer vs. Kramer.

The soap opera nature of the thing is only heightened when Eloise's drug addict father Reggie (André Holland, also in Selma) reappears after being absent for most of the girl's life, and asks Elliot for a payout to disappear, potentially paving the way for her grandfather to retain custody. It's the kind of storytelling maneuver that's intended to add complexity to the drama, but just makes apparent all the machinery at work to contrive new ways to hold off the climax juuuust a little bit longer. "You're a stereotype!" Rowena's attorney brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) yells at Reggie at one point, in a bit of dialogue that's about as on-the-nose as it gets.

My problem with Black or White isn't that it's tackling hot button topic like race relations. I wish more movies would, to be honest. The more we have these kinds of conversations, the greater the likelihood of achieving real progress. Rather, what bugged me is the way the deck is so obviously stacked in Elliot's favor, both within the world of the film and in the eyes of the moviegoer. It's plain to see that Eloise is loved by her grandfather, and she obviously doesn't lack for anything, which essentially forces the audience to view Rowena through the same antagonistic lens Elliot does. We're never not on his side.

Yes, he's dealing with a drinking problem, but all that ends up doing is give him the shadings of an arc, unlike poor Octavia Spencer, reduced to wincing and mugging on the sidelines, playing a character so thinly-sketched that she and her entire oversized brood feel like they escaped from a sitcom. Without giving anything away, Black or White concludes pretty much the only it can given the way the chessboard has been set up for us. While it attempts some measure of high-minded resolution to the many complicated issues it raises, it's simply casting too wide a net to feel truly satisfying. In trying to be color blind, it just comes off as tone deaf. C-

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