In its heyday, the popular, long-running television show Law & Order produced an episode that covered a similar topic to the one featured in Mike Binder’s new film Black Or White, the question of whether a black child is better off being raised by black family members or white family members. A difficult and sensitive issue for sure, Law & Order handled it in an appropriately challenging and thought-provoking manner, while writer/director Binder exploits it in yet another self-congratulatory dose of forced Hollywood liberalism that ends up doing more harm than good, as it can’t seem to break its arm fast enough patting itself on the back, relying on skin color alone to make its points rather then delving into the potentially complicated reasons behind them.
Kevin Costner plays Elliot Anderson, grandfather to young, black Eloise, and who at the beginning of the film becomes her sole guardian when his wife dies in an automobile accident. The backstory is rather extensive, and to make a long story short, Elliot and his wife’s custody of her has something to do with their daughter’s interracial marriage, and her subsequent death in childbirth, and Eloise’s drugged-out dad being unprepared and unwilling for the responsibility. Enter Rowena “wee wee” Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), her grandmother on the “black” side, who sues Elliot for custody because she believes Eloise belongs with her rather large black family, instead of in a lonely old white lawyer’s house, and just as quickly Black Or White begins falling apart at the seams.
The film exhibits a poor, misguided sense of character development, and ultimately sidesteps its delicate issue without ever engaging it head-on, and despite its pretense it is ultimately racist in the same way that someone might proclaim their progressiveness by the number of “black friends” they have. Binder develops Elliot’s character by giving him a drinking problem of course, in case at any time the audience doubts he is a wounded man, and also so it has a scapegoat for Rowena’s protestations; it’s never because he is WHITE, it’s because he drinks too much, a fact that anyone can agree with. So Binder pads Rowena’s case with ham-fisted obviousness, stacking the deck when the screenplay could be written anyway it wants, never giving a reason for his alcohol abuse other than a cheap way to kick the story onto the field. We also get to hear how successful a businesswoman Rowena is, over and over again without Binder actually showing us, drawing attention to what a big deal the film thinks this is that a black person can be successful. And throughout the entire court case the judge never once requests to speak to Eloise, which any judge in their right mind would do, considering she is an intelligent, maturing girl who certainly can speak for herself – but not in Mike Binder’s world. Black Or White would be over in five minutes if Eloise was allowed to speak, and so the film has to treat her like a piece of property to be fought over. And let’s not even start with the overcompensation of Eloise’s black math tutor, who speaks several different languages and whose intelligence is exaggerated to the point of absurdity.
I don’t enjoy reviewing films like this. Everybody has their own feelings about these things, and some might even find this empowering rather than harmful. But George W. Bush once famously called racism, that particular scourge of our society, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and it’s probably one of the most lucid things the man has ever said. Republicans have been slaying Democrats with the sentiment behind that phrase since long before Bush said it, and my feeling is that Hollywood is all too eager to help it ring true. There is a sense when pulling punches, or oversimplifying, or mistaking the act of raising an issue for an offering of solutions, that low expectations are exactly the commodity that is being dealt in. By watering everything down, Binder is essentially trying to hit a homerun by playing tee ball, refusing to challenge audiences outside of their token acknowledgment that racism still exists but can be very easily overcome, sending people back out into the world shored up instead of broken down, broken down the way any realistic portrayal of race relations in this country should leave you.
Additionally, the very last scene of this film is so fundamentally wrong in the way it uses the fate of a little girl as poetic justice for the main character, it might be solely responsible for my one star rating. I loathe what Mike Binder has created with Black Or White – the word “Or” appearing separately during the opening credits as if that alone was making some kind of statement – and as much as I hate how easily this film goes down, I’m glad its toxic complacency will not linger too long on anyone’s mind.