“Black or White” may be the title, but there are plenty of gray areas tackled in this good ol’-fashioned family dramedy from standup comic turned filmmaker Mike Binder (“Reign Over Me,” “The Upside of Anger”).
Pitting a binge-drinking Kevin Costner against a butt-whooping Octavia Spencer in a battle for custody over their beloved granddaughter, this well-performed and occasionally amusing affair has a distinctively ’90s feel to it, laying on the sauce rather thick at times, although it still creates a believable story raising questions about parenthood and racial prejudice in modern-day Los Angeles.
A somewhat clumsy opening scene introduces us to California attorney Elliot Anderson (Costner), whose wife has just died in a car accident, leaving the man with little consolation outside a home bar fully stocked with Scotch. But he does have one remaining hope in life: his mixed-race 7-year-old granddaughter, Eloise (newcomer Jillian Estell), who’s been living with him ever since the girl’s mother died at childbirth and her drug-addicted father, Reggie (Andre Holland), landed in jail.
Trying to cope with his granddaddy duties as he slowly drinks himself into oblivion, Elliot manages to keep things afloat for the time being, especially after hiring an overqualified math tutor, Duvan (Mpho Koaho), to serve as right-hand man and provide some necessary comic relief to the household. Yet just when things are picking up, he’s paid a visit by Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer), a loving but iron-fisted matriarch whose boggle-eyed glare is enough to push back an army, and who soon takes it upon herself to demand custody of her granddaughter through the help of hotshot nephew lawyer, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie).
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“Inspired by a true incident” per the opening credits, the screenplay by Binder paints a broad but credible portrait of a fractured family living on opposite sides of L.A.’s racial barrier, with Elliot carousing around his massive suburban mansion while Rowena shelters relatives in a Compton abode across the street from a crack den. Yet neither household is shown to be a total movie cliche, and the script intelligently navigates both domains to reveal how they have more in common than they may imagine, especially when it concerns the best interests of their granddaughter.
As Rowena blindly (and not always understandably) continues her legal pursuits just as Reggie pops back into the picture, the race question is eventually brought into play and even becomes a major factor in the ensuing trial. Various plot mechanics, some of them rather heavy-handed, lead to a resolution that predictably shows how little race ultimately matters, although “Black or White” never panders too easily to sentiments, creating characters who are riddled with flaws but likable all the same.
Such is the case with Elliot, and as both producer and star, this is clearly Costner’s film for the taking. It’s a pleasure to see the seasoned actor approaching this kind of role after a recent run of genre-related material (“Man of Steel,” “3 Days to Kill”), reteaming with Binder (with whom he worked on “The Upside of Anger”) to play a man whose life has been riddled with tragedy but who still has a fighting spirit and dark sense of humor. (Costner can also still play a convincing drunk, which is no easy task.)
The rest of the cast is excellent, starting with Spencer and her guns-a-blazing portrayal of Rowena, and moving down to the terrific young Koaho, who sparks the most laughs with his depiction of an African immigrant who’s the smartest guy in the room and not afraid to say it.