“Black Or White” gives Kevin Costner several of his best on-screen moments in years. The opening scene, the aftermath of a car accident, is hardcore, touching and real and a late movie courtroom showdown is powerful stuff but memories of those great sequences are tainted by a weak ending that saps much of the movie’s power.
Costner is Elliot, a recent widower and caretaker of his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). His daughter, Eloise’s mom, died in childbirth and the father (André Holland) is not in the picture. Elliot is grief stricken and frequently drunk so the girl’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), tries to get custody with the help of her brother, lawyer Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie). The ensuing custody battle raises questions of loyalty, race, compassion and good intentions.
Director and writer Mike Binder swings for the fences here but instead forfeits the game. His script tackles issues of race and of privilege but shrouds them in a cloak of melodrama. Race becomes a major issue during the custody trial but the film doesn’t add anything to the discourse. Instead it plays the drama broad, taking a safe route (THERE WILL BE NO SPOILERS HERE) that leaves issues hanging, reducing everything to black or white with little nuance.
Costner, however, hasn’t been this good in years. He’s a believable drunk with the look of a man who has weathered tragedy but hasn’t given up. A bent-but-not-broken spirit oozes off him and a stronger script might have placed his name on more than a few Best Actor lists.
The other end of the spectrum is Octavia Spencer. The Academy Award winner is a feisty presence, bringing fire and empathy to her scenes.
The supporting cast, including Mackie, Holland and Estell all do good work as well, bringing both drama and humour to a story that needs both to be effective. It’s a shame that an ending that feels pat and sentimental undermines all this good work.