Black or White
This is a film that missed its mark while trying to tackle fundamental racial issues in our society.
Someone very close to me can’t sing a note, and she knows it. To the contrary, she sarcastically refers to an entry on a report card by her grade school music teacher which read, “Tries real hard.” That could be the description of this film.
It tells the story of a wealthy white Los Angeles attorney who is left to raise his 8 year old black granddaughter following the death of his wife in an car accident. This only adds to his trauma as his daughter, the child’s mother, died previously in childbirth. It’s not a surprise that he turns to alcohol for comfort.
Though Kevin Costner is not as accomplished as seen in the recently released “McFarland”, he is still effective, playing the heartsick grandfather. Though his drinking is understandable given his emotional turmoil, the fact that he begins getting smashed at breakfast leaves disaster looming on the horizon.
The child’s father, Reggie (Andre Holland), is a confirmed drug addict who has never played a meaningful role in her life. As a result, her surviving grandmother, a determined black woman, fully intends on playing a larger role in the little girl’s life.
Olivia Spencer appears as the grandmother, and she is an actress who always dominates the screen. In this case, denied any meaningful response from Costner, their aggressive selfishness leads to a court battle to determine custody which dominates 2/3 of the film.
I learned as young lawyer that I had no desire to get anywhere near family law, so my feelings about this film may be a bit unfair. Nonetheless, it’s tough to sit and watch competing lawyers trying to do little more than tarnish the representation of the grandparent sitting on the other side of the courtroom. Anthony Mackie plays Ms. Spencer’s brother and lawyer, but despite being a wonderful actor his role here is pretty one dimensional.
Unfortunately the film ends up diminishing the entire legal profession. Ironically, it is saved by the performance of Paula Newsome who plays the black judge handling the paternity action. As opposed to everyone else, she is gracious, intelligent, and dedicated to maintaining both order and dignity in the courtroom. She is the one person in the film that is a pleasure to watch at every turn.
As noted, the film, written and directed by Mike Binder, has trouble sustaining itself despite it’s noble intentions. In the end, it seems to be little more than a battle between a wealthy white lawyer symbolizing Silicon Valley and a black grandmother who appears to be living in Watts.
Costner has the courage to show all of the weaknesses of his character, but it is hard to really root for him when it becomes apparent that he has no idea where his granddaughter’s privileged school is located despite the fact that she has lived with him for years. Having no desire to compromise with relatively poor black relatives seeking only to play a role in the little girl’s life, who really cared if he lost custody?
However, Ms. Spencer’s grandmother is little better. She was prone to emulate a one dimensional harpy who insisted on telling everyone what to do and then being obeyed. One of the high points of the film was when the judge threatened her with incarceration if she interrupted the proceeding one more time, and the bitter look on Ms. Spencer’s face was worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Though I dare not say who won the custody battle, I was disappointed that the judge denied the request of both grandparents and simply placed the child in Foster Care. After all, the little girl seemed to be far smarter than either of the relatives seeking to raise her.