Movie a Day Blog can’t blame Kevin Costner for trying to reignite his film acting career, taking some lessons, as every actor his age is doing, from the miraculous reincarnation of Liam Neeson as an action star.
Unlike Neeson, Costner is still trying to prove he has potent dramatic chops, too, and his latest example is BLACK OR WHITE (2014, Theatrical), a middling family drama that has an interesting premise but a weak denouement.
Costner plays a sudden widower (the film opens on the day his wife dies in a car accident) who is left as the sole custodian of an adorable mixed race pre-teen (well played by young Jillian Estell).
His departed wife was the real caretaker of the girl, whose mother died in childbirth. Costner is supposed to be an attorney, but we never see him do anything that resembles work, and he’s a dunderhead when he finally on the stand at the custody hearing.
The best part of BLACK OR WHITE is the fact that Costner really isn’t the sole custodian; the formidable Octavia Spencer is the mother of the girl’s father, a conveniently labeled and stereotypically depicted crack addict, and she’s tired of seeing Costner turn her granddaughter into an upper-class LA snob.
Spencer knows the real reason Costner doesn’t want to share custody; he’s a racist, something Costner’s character never really denies, despite the usual protestations and bluster about not seeing black or white (get it?).
That might have been interesting meat to allow the actors to devour, but writer-director Mike Binder has his eye set right on the melodrama. Shortly after it begins, BLACK OR WHITE turns into a modern version of THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962), as Costner is revealed to be a serious alcoholic, one who cannot even stop when his beloved granddaughter is in his care.
Spencer knows this, and tries to use it in the family court custody hearing that the film builds to as its dramatic climax, but because Binder makes her be the mouthy, spunky old black woman, her complaint is largely ignored. The depiction of Spencer’s extended family in their lovely South Central neighborhood is so romanticized and glorified as to seem right out of a Hallmark TV special. Real black characters don’t exist in this film.
Real white ones don’t do well, either. Comedian Bill Burr is well cast as Costner’s young associate who somehow believes in his boss ,but he’s an even worse lawyer than Costner, and is shown to be totally inept in court. Mpho Koaho brings some much-needed humor to the proceedings as a math tutor for Estell who’s an expert in everything, but the story keeps coming back to Costner sneaking alcohol shots constantly. He belts back as much whiskey as the Russians down vodka in LEVIATHAN(2014, post soon to come!)
In a different director’s hand, BLACK OR WHITE could have made for riveting drama. Costner has his granddaughter so brainwashed that she can’t possibly imagine living with the “other” half of her family, and when she goes for a extended visit at the film’s conclusion, she acts as if she’s been sentenced to the work farm.
That’s not the actress Estell’s choice, it’s Binder’s, and it typifies why BLACK OR WHITE is actually neither. It’s just bland.