Tweetable Takeaway: Black or White foregoes an insightful conversation on race in favor of stereotypes.
By: Wil Loper, Contributor
If you like your Kevin Costner with a side of race relations, but aren’t much one for wolves or dancing, Black or White might just be your movie. If only it were a good movie. BLACK OR WHITE is a movie that at least lets you know exactly what you’re getting into with its title. You just might not know how literally it takes issues of black and white. Ostensibly a film that will deal with issues of race, the movie takes its title to task on every element of the movie. Character traits, plot points, and scenes themselves are either good or bad, up or down, or of course, black or white. Any shade of gray is left by the wayside, all nuance squashed in the dichotomy set forth by the movie.
The movie opens with Kevin Costner’s character, Elliot Anderson, in a hospital waiting room having just learned his wife died. Making sure to go one depressing step further, the movie also reveals his daughter died while giving birth to her daughter, Eloise. With a dad away with several drug felony charges, Eloise falls into Grandpa Elliot’s lap. With all the dying going on around Elliot, as well as the incredibly melodramatic music constantly playing in the background, it’s no wonder he begins to drink. And drink. And drink some more.
This will give ammunition later to Eloise’s grandmother, Rowena, played by Octavia Spencer. Rowena wants custody of Eloise, but Elliot is unwilling, so it’s to court they go. Rowena hires her brother, who is well-versed in law, and decides their best strategy to win is to paint Elliot as a racist old man who has problems with black people. On the flip side, Elliot meets with his legal team, and as a portly lawyer intones in a Southern drawl, “We can get a lot uglier than they can, Elliot.” It’s the first of many ridiculously drawn dichotomies, where instead of pursuing the interesting themes at hand, the movie reduces itself to a black or white argument. These characters are never explored as real people with real thoughts, but only as one-dimensional movie characters that serve the needs of the plot when it’s needed. Jeremiah yells at Reggie that he’s a walking stereotype, a clear bluff from the movie that if it’s bold enough to call one of its characters a stereotype, then surely it’s smart enough that none of the other characters are stereotypes, right? One has only to look at the final scene as Costner pulls up on a road with asphalt so cracked it appears undrivable. The broken up road is shorthand for, “Costner has arrived in the black neighborhood.”
Black or White is the type of movie where characters conform to the plot’s direction, instead of the plot organically arising from the characters. Often this means characters will have changes of heart or mind that feel arbitrary and forced. Rowena is out for Elliot’s blood the majority of the movie, until the end when she completely acquiesces, no second thought or inner conflict to be found. The next scene she’s reeling Elliot in for a smack on the cheek. With her lips, not her hand. Eloise’s missing father, Reggie, shows up late in the movie to ask Elliot for money, and when Elliot turns him down, Reggie beats him up, pulls out a switchblade, and goes to kidnap his daughter. Until he sees a crayon drawing Eloise drew, and a 180 change in his character occurs so fast, moviegoers should sue for whiplash. Just a couple scenes earlier he wasn’t able to spell his own daughter’s name, and now a drawing has a life-changing effect on him.
It all happens because the screenplay needed the movie to resolve, to have Eloise stay with Elliot, and to wrap up sooner rather than later. The change isn’t believable, and it’s only one of many moments in the film that show people as being only good or bad, with none of the shades in between.
Black or White is a movie that sets out to deliver a message, and it’s felt in every scene. What that message exactly is, I’m not so sure. As far as I could tell, it’s that if you’re a crack-smoking drug addict, you aren’t fit to be a good father. However, if you have the charm of an alcoholic Kevin Costner, you can get by, but barely. As long as you promise to cut back on a drink or two. I give Black or White 2 switchblades out of 5.
Score: 2 out of 5