In 1967, Stanley Kramer directed a dream cast in the film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. It’s the story of an affluent, liberal, Caucasian couple reacting to their adult daughter’s surprise announcement she has fallen in love with, and plans to marry, an African-American man. The film was controversial in its time because it explored the, then scandalous, subject of interracial relationships. The object of the daughter’s affection was a world-renowned physician, a widower whose wife and son had been killed in an auto accident. In short, he would have been any parent’s ideal son-in-law were it not for his race. The story also takes a broad-brush swipe at impact the correlation between race and social class has on people. One might be tempted to make the case for seeing writer-producer-director Mike Binder’s new film, Black or White as a sort of post-modern exploration of these themes. I don’t know whether that was aspirationally true. It is definitely not true in the execution.
Black or White is the story of successful attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) whose wife has just been killed in an auto accident. We learn that he and his late wife are raising their mixed-race, pre-teen, granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Eloise is the product of a relationship between their late daughter, who died in child birth, and her African-American boyfriend. Eloise is precocious and well-adjusted. Elliot struggles with his grief over the loss of his wife, his unresolved issues over he death of his daughter, and the responsibilities of parenting young Eloise. He also seeks an inappropriate amount of solace from single-malt scotch.
Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer) wants to take a more active role in her granddaughter’s life and ultimately seeks to wrest custody from Elliot. Rowena wants to reconnect Eloise with her father, Rowena’s son Reggie (Andre Holland). Reggie is an ex-convict and a would-be recovering crack addict. Elliot wants none of it.
Black or White incorporates every conceivable stereo-type; the conservative, upper middle-class white man whose prejudice lies just below the surface, the strong black woman supporting a house full of children and grandchildren with a blind spot where her son is concerned, the upwardly-mobile African-American attorney who wants to win at any cost, and the ex-con drug addict who can’t cope. Being set in Los Angeles, there is also the obligatory Hispanic housekeeper.
There are elements of this story that are potentially interesting. One wonders why, when Elliot and his wife are such obviously good parents to their granddaughter, they were estranged their daughter when she was 17, single, and pregnant, What prompted the privileged white girl from a good home to take up with a crack-addicted street thug? It would be interesting to know about the relationship between Reggie and the deceased daughter. None of these are explored however. Instead we have a predictable, and not very exciting, court-room drama with all the predictable beats. When will Elliot be taken to task for having used the N-word? How heavy-handed will they draw the comparison between Elliot’s drinking and Reggie’s drug use? There are some nice moments of humor but the ending is contrived and saccharine.
The movie is well acted. Special recognition goes to Holland for his performance as Reggie, this on the heels of his role as Andrew Young in Selma. Unfortunately none of the actors are given enough to work with.