Elliot (Kevin Costner) is drunk, and this is unsurprising but a problem, because he has somewhere to go. His solution is to recruit his daughter’s brilliant tutor Duvan (Mpho Koaho) to drive him. They’re going to visit Elliot’s machatunim, who are black, so of course they live in Compton. “Have you ever been to Compton?” Elliot (who is white) asks of Duvan, a refugee of horrors from some nameless place in Africa. Elliot chuckles and we embark on one of those movie montages whose message is, “ZOMG COMPTON”: there’s lots of handheld footage out of car windows of colorful poor people or color being colorful, poor. It almost feels like the first five minutes of City of God. What makes this moment stand out is that we have no such anthropological introduction to Elliot’s neighborhood, firmly white and upper-class. That’s because Black or White, Mike Binder’s entry into our national conversation, is firmly a narrative which, intentionally or otherwise, is meant for white consumption. The effort it puts into giving black characters the screentime and depth they so rarely get in movies intended for white consumption is itself telling; the film labors to portray black people, but slips into its white perspective unconsciously and effortlessly.
Elliot’s wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle, shown only in weird, wordless flashbacks) has died in a car crash, leaving him the sole legal guardian of his adorable granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Her mother, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth at 17, while Eloise’s father, Reggie (Andre Holland), is a black addict whose absence from his daughter’s life is a blessing as far as Elliot is concerned. But Reggie’s mother Rowena (Octavia Spencer), a serial small-time entrepreneur supporting a vast extended family under her three roofs, sees this catastrophe as an opportunity to bring Eloise into her fold. With the help of her hot-shot attorney brother (Anthony Mackie), Rowena sues for full custody, creating a trial and a putting numerous personal crises on a collision course.
Black or White suffers too much in its execution for it to be remotely considered good; tellingly, much of that springs from decisions intertwined with the film’s philosophy and politics. In retrospect, starting the movie after Carol’s death robs us of necessary context, leaving how much Elliot’s behavior is driven by grief and how much is of a continuum with past patterns, which are ambiguous to us even though it’s obvious to the other characters. Even beyond that, interactions are deterministic plot mechanisms and thus stilted or forced, losing the thread of character development. Certain characters, notably the admittedly-delightful sidekick Duvan, seem to exist in a fantasia, lacking real dimension and making inexplicable choices. Crucially and tellingly, Eloise herself is a cipher, her actions and choices dictated to her by the hammer of plot. Which makes sense, because Black or White treats her like a pure MacGuffin: nobody even discusses the future of her schooling!
Even the central conceit of the film is baffling when you try to place it in a real-world context, but then again Black or White is not best understood that way. It’s a fairy tale, eschewing verisimilitude and disconnected from the rules and laws that govern our world. If that allows us to explain away some of the film’s biggest oddities, why then is this custody case even happening? Why are the reaction, from Elliot and others, to Carol’s sudden, violent death indistinguishable from those following a long and predictable decline? Why do details that should’ve been mentioned earlier only show up much later, at their precise moment of maximum plot-turning impact? This path of inquiry opens new questions. Who is this fairy tale for? What does it mean?
The answer, sadly, is that Black or White is primarily about comforting white people, mostly Boomers who fervently disclaim holding any racist views yet find themselves increasingly alienated from and beleaguered and indicted by the broader national debate on race and racism. Elliot’s plight is an allegory for the plight of millions of older whites who see themselves metaphorically on trial for being well-off white in the way that Elliot is literally on trial. They probably think, “It didn’t have to be about race, but black people made it that way… Sure I see race, but I judge people based on their individual nature… People who are half-black are also half-white… I feel trapped in an unwinnable debate by black insistence on the acknowledgment of white privilege.” The failure of Black or White is that, like a fairy tale, its intent is to comfort, not confront; it’s not just portraying and engaging with problematic ideology, it’s an apologia for it. Black or White will close minds, not open them.
The biggest disappointment, both as a viewer and a critic, is that Black or White is not particularly provocative. It’s just good enough to be mediocre, and little else. It’s more than thoughtful enough not be plainly dumb or offensive, but not nearly thoughtful enough to challenge its audience. Peppered with jokes at inappropriate moments, flush with distractions and oddities (the sole point of Gillian Jacobs is to provide unfunny, sexist humor), its premise is so thoroughly manufactured, going out of its way to avoid asking any interesting questions, soits climax is contrived as to ensure none get answered. In the end, Black or White is a fascinating document of a certain perspective on race in America in 2015, but that need not make it a good movie.