Sunday, February 8, 2015

“Black or White” Has More Dimension than I Expected

I dropped in on Kevin Costner’s new movie on a snowy Sunday afternoon, thinking that “Black and White” would fill the time. It did better than that.

I had been drawn in by the trailer about a grandfather, Elliot Anderson (Costner), learning to care for his mixed-race granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), alone. Grandma Anderson has just died in a car accident, and Eloise’s mom (Elliot’s daughter) died in childbirth.

This leaves Elliot alone in a posh LA home with a beautiful little girl, a Hispanic housemaid, a full bar, and a serious drinking problem. Of course, he’s grieving after his wife’s sudden death. But Eliot grieves before breakfast and sprays his breath with Binaca before dropping Eloise off at school. You know that’s going to spell trouble.

Enter Rowena (Olivia Spencer), Eloise’s other grandmother, known as Grandma Weewee. Her son Reggie, Eloise’s father (André Holland), is a drug addict; he fathered Eloise and fled; and Elliot wants him nowhere near the girl. Rowena thinks Eloise needs the family connection and support that her large extended clan living on LA’s South Side can provide. So “Black and White” soon becomes a courtroom battle, lightened by the considerable comic chops of Costner and Spencer.

But the film broadens its reach by taking on two painful topics: racial hatred and substance abuse. Costner’s legal team uses Reggie’s drug habit against Rowena’s case in court. Her lawyer counters with Costner’s drinking and his alleged racial prejudice. In his defense, Costner delivers a remarkable speech on racial prejudice that leaves the courtroom speechless.

As the plot unfolds over the final third, the storyline gets quite messy, and I wasn’t sure how it would all play out. But then isn’t that a good thing? Of course, a movie like this has to feel good in the end. Look at the publicity still. Do you think either of those characters is going to die? Do you think Granddad and Eloise will not end up together in the end?

But while your heart is being tugged by the central characters, the movie tears at you with a powerful story of two fathers, one black, one white, both in the throes of addiction, one to crack, the other to alcohol. Meanwhile, each man strives in his own imperfect way to be a good father. All of that left me with much to ponder in my own vocation as a father and grandfather.

There is plenty of brokenness and humanity on display on both sides of the racial divide in “Black and White,” and the movie even offers us an angel of grace—one of its pleasant surprises.

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