Story problems undermine the topical ‘Black or White’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Good intentions fall victim to gaping potholes in logic and storytelling in “Black or White,” an utterly sincere and frustrating film from the usually dependable writer-director Mike Binder.

Kevin Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a wealthy lawyer whose wife has just been killed in a car crash. This leaves him in charge of their 9-year-old granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), whose mother — Elliot’s daughter — died in childbirth.

Elliot has a drinking problem that’s pushed forward by the death of his wife. Still, he’s up for raising Eloise on his own. Then a problem interferes: Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), who believes the girl needs to be raised in a black community. Complicating Rowena’s argument is the fact that her son, Duvan (Mpho Koaho) — the father Eloise barely remembers — has a long history of drug abuse and criminal activity.

Rowena enlists her high-powered attorney brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), to take the case to court. And Jeremiah wants to make it all about race.

Understand, Elliot and Rowena actually like one another — at one point, Rowena brings her entire extended family over to Elliot’s for an impromptu pool party. They just each sincerely think they know what’s best for Eloise. So off to court they go.

And that’s where the problems pile up. Duvan — who’s still doing drugs — volunteers to take a drug test. So why doesn’t anybody test him? Why doesn’t anybody screen the respective homes? Elliot’s is a pristine suburban estate. Rowena’s place is pristine as well — except the guys on the porch next door are smoking crack. That’s something most family court judges would want to know.

At one point, Duvan comes to Elliot’s house and takes Eloise away illegally — but Elliot never files charges. And when Elliot is on the witness stand being badgered as a racist, why doesn’t he point out that he had 20 black people over to his house for a pool party?

There’s a lot more, but most crucially, no one in authority ever asks Eloise where she wants to live. What?

Obviously race is a messy, divisive issue for many and any opportunity to examine or discuss the frictions involved should be applauded. But logic just can’t be abandoned in the haste for that discussion. “Black or White” stumbles even as it tries to move forward.

‘Black or White’


Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight

Running time: 121 minutes

“Black or White” (PG-13) Kevin Costner stars as a single grandfather trying to retain custody of his mixed-race granddaughter in this well-intentioned film that’s undercut by too many story potholes. (121 minutes) GRADE: C-