The race issue at the heart of Black or White comes down to family. At the end of the day, despite all the smoke and mirrors about drug addicts and raising a child in bad versus good parts of town, it is about who would be better to raise a half black and half white little girl. Should it be her grandfather (Kevin Costner) who is the only parent she has known, or her grandmother (Octavia Spencer) who believes that the girl needs to become familiar with half her heritage that has been sorely missing?
In writer-director Mike Binder's film, we learn that Eloise (Jillian Estell) loves living with her papa. Her mother, Costner’s child, died in childbirth and her father (Spencer’s child) is a crack addict who is virtually missing. When Costner’s wife dies in a car crash, that is when Rowena (Spencer) decides that not only does Eloise need to learn about her people and be around her cousins and kin, but that a female influence is also sorely needed.
For Costner’s Elliot, it’s all about (or so he thinks) how the girl's father Reggie is and always will be a drug addict.
What Binder does with his story is use the court system to settle the issue. This method of storytelling, for one, gives Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) one hell of a role to sink his teeth into as the family lawyer who is trying to get custody for his sister Rowena.
Meanwhile, Elliot (who is also a lawyer) enlists his friend and partner and Binder’s story inter-splices courtroom moments with familial ones. And through all of it, despite Elliot’s convictions to the contrary, it does seem to actually come down to race. Yet, it’s not about stereotypes and how each race is different or where they live and even what economic strata they are in.
As delivered in Binder's movie, unfortunately, it takes too simplistic a look at it and at the same time, it overreaches. This, as everyone knows, is a complex issue. Perhaps the story would have been better served if it truly was just about custody of a little girl. If we are in fact trying to espouse forgetting race in the equation of our modern lives, than Black or White does it a disservice by presenting the issue as exactly that, Black or White.
Yet, our Black or White review can safely say, it is still quite a powerful, emotional and heartwarming story about love and how it -- at least -- is color blind. We pull for these characters, all of them. This is a messy situation and it reflects a society grappling with race issues every day of every week. There needs to be a systemic and societal change to how we live as people -- that is the root of the problem.
The issue with Black or White is it just scratches a lot of surfaces. Perhaps Binder would have been better off making a simpler story with his narrative instead of taking on a centuries old issue and framing it as a simple family courtroom drama.