Trial lawyer Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) can’t handle the direction his life is going so her turns deeper and deeper into bottles of alcohol. He’s dealing with the death of his wife in a car accident, and now trying to raise his granddaughter by himself. But where this might be an average family drama, things are more complicated: Eloise’s (Jillian Estell) mother died in childbirth and her father, Reggie (Andre Holland), struggles with his own addictions and his mother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), wants to get custody of the girl so that she can be raised within African-American culture. Sounds like a lot to chew on, right? Black or White aims high at our prejudices, addictions, and family systems, and asks us what it would take to make us change.
Dysfunction runs high here, and the sudden death of a matriarch, primary caregiver, and calming influence in everyone’s lives is damning. That would be enough, wouldn’t it? If you’ve (recently) handled the struggle of grief and pain of losing a loved one, then you know that can be… debilitating. But add in addiction, whether to illegal drugs or alcohol, and the end result gets messier and messier… the bottle seems to have no bottom. Ironically (even simply), Elliott and Reggie are conflicted men on opposite sides who both have the same problem: they feel responsible but they can’t face themselves anymore, so they cover it up with drugs.
Of course, the race piece is huge, not just because of the realities of the situation but also because of the perceptions that the people bring to the situation. Yes, Elliott doesn’t understand Rowena’s life (or her son) but it works the other way, too. Yes, Elliott should give Reggie a break but he’s not the angel Rowena wants to believe (or is just proclaim?) that he is. It is taken a step further by Rowena’s other son (Anthony Mackie), another lawyer, who wants to make an example of Elliott. It’s a compelling set of examples portrayed and wrestled through, with my slightly frustrated caveat that Eloise doesn’t have much of a voice – but I’m not asking she break into song.
Costner reportedly dropped millions of dollars to make sure the film was made, and that’s saying something. We, like characters in the film, might say we don’t “see” color, but our country proves over and over again that race is an issue we haven’t untangled yet. It’s tricky- and while this film does strive for family-friendly drama- it proves that any discussion takes time, effort, patience, forgiveness, and heart. Rating: borrow it