No gray area

"Black or White" oversimplifies racial tensions

In the shadow of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri (to name but one hotbed), "Selma" appears to be the right film for the right time of civil-rights unrest. But where does that leave "Black or White," the new race-themed drama that arguably positions a white man as the heroic victim of discrimination at the hands of African Americans? In an awkward spot.

Thankfully, writer-director Mike Binder's "Black or White" isn't quite so simplistic as that description suggests, but it's close. Kevin Costner's Elliot -- a high-priced L.A. lawyer embroiled in a battle to keep custody of his biracial, 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (cute-as-a-button Jillian Estell) -- isn't, by any stretch, Atticus Finch. Yet Costner's staunchly earnest manner, shadowed though it is by Elliot's alcoholism, continues to suggest a moral center. When Elliot's wife (Jennifer Ehle) dies, he's left alone with his granddaughter just as her paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) smells an opportunity to bring Eloise back into her fold.

Unfortunately, Costner's star power seems to seduce Binder (who also directed the actor in "The Upside of Anger") into sticking to Elliot's perspective, thus making "Black or White" a rather mushily obvious, TV-movie-style courtroom drama built on straw-man arguments. Lower-middle-class entrepreneur Rowena demonstrates savvy and sass in pretty much equal measure, but she's ever the spoiler in "Black or White," and her point of view remains secondary to Elliot's both in screen time and moral authority. Meanwhile, Costner broods and drinks, but also shows tender fatherly regard for his granddaughter, while Rowena's marginalization allows her to come off as motivated more by pride or cultural indignation than maternal love.

Were the lines less clearly drawn, "Black or White" might have kept audiences guessing more about what's best for Eloise. Instead, we get Rowena -- as much a handful for her lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) as for the family-court judge (Paula Newsome) -- flaring her eyes and badgering everyone. No one deserves Rowena's ire more than her ne'er-do-well drug-addicted son (André Holland), Eloise's father, who's pointedly referred to as "a cliche. A perfect stereotype."

Acknowledging the discomfort of brushing against such stereotypes and sorting through prejudices occasionally takes "Black or White" into intriguing territory. Most notably, Elliot's climactic courtroom testimony arrives at a confessional monologue about the difficulty of seeing others and oneself in objective human terms instead of reductive or wishful ones. With Costner in fine fettle, the scene is as much the reason to see the movie as it was to make it, but it's too little, too late to balance the scale-tipping sentiment of "Black or White" with complexity worthy of the cultural moment.

Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight. Two hours, 1 minute.

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