Don’t let the title fool you: Black or White has nothing to do with Michael Jackson or Macaulay Culkin or those really-cool-in-a-1991-sort-of-way digital tricks used in the duo’s famous music video.
Instead of a pop-song lecture about equality, this Black or White gives Detroit-born Mike Binder an opportunity to tackle a hot-button issue: What is the best environment in which to raise a mixed-race child?
This is Binder's first movie as a writer and director in almost eight years, and Black or White reunites Binder with Kevin Costner, who gave one of his finest performances in Binder’s drama The Upside of Anger 10 years ago.
Costner is also quite impressive here, playing wealthy but troubled attorney Elliot Anderson, who is doing his best to bring up his granddaughter Eloise, played by the gifted newcomer Jillian Estell. Elliot and his wife were shattered when their teenage daughter ran off with an African-American drug addict named Reggie and they took in Eloise after her mother died in childbirth.
Now Elliot is a recent widower whose coping mechanisms too often come from a bottle of Scotch, and the strain is beginning to show. For years, Elliot has kept at bay Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena, played by Octavia Spencer. With Eloise getting older, however, and Elliot becoming increasingly unsteady, Rowena suggests that Eloise spend some time in her home in South Central.
Elliot reacts badly to the proposal and sparks a custody battle that escalates dramatically with the unexpected return of Reggie, played by Andre Holland. He’s out of jail and supposedly clean and sober; Elliot has his doubts, but who is he to cast stones?
To Binder's credit, none of the key characters he's fashioned is completely admirable or thoroughly awful, and the acting in Black or White is consistently sturdy. Spencer provides a nicely balanced profile of a grandma who flip-flops between being emotionally needy and greedy, and Holland convincingly portrays Reggie's vulnerability and anxiety as he's used as a pitiful pawn by Rowena and her crafty brother, a lawyer who'll stop at nothing to win the case.
The conviction in the performances though can only carry us so far when the screenplay becomes increasingly far-fetched. Rowena has supposedly made a tidy living running a real estate agency, yet she inexplicably lives in a cozy cottage directly across the street from - wait for it - a bustling crack-house. Not exactly the perfect place for Reggie, who's trying to say no to drugs, but a great location for contrived melodramatic complications.
By the same token, Elliot gets so plastered at one point that he hurls ugly names at Reggie within earshot of witnesses, another plot point that seems hard to believe. And the finale, involving a brutal brawl and a last-minute change of heart, is so out of left field, it's almost painfully silly.
That's a shame, because the topics Binder is trying to talk about are definitely thought-provoking and deserving of serious discussion. Does Eloise belong in an exclusive private school with mostly white classmates, or in an African-American community? Or would she benefit from dividing her time between the two?
While Black or White poses these questions, it doesn't spend the amount of time it should on coming up with credible answers. When it comes to bringing out the strengths of his actors, but his writing is just too heavy-handed.