'Black or White': What the Critics Are Saying

Black or White Still - H 2015
Tracey Bennett

Black or White Still - H 2015

Mike Binder's race-related dramedy following a custody battle stars Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs and Anthony Mackie.

Black or White stars Kevin Costner as Eliot, a binge-drinking grandfather who is tangled in a custody battle with distant family member Rowena (Octavia Spencer) over their granddaughter, played by Jillian Estell.

Written and directed by Mike Binder, the dramedy also features Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs and Anthony Mackie.

The Super Bowl weekend release is expected to debut in the $6 million to $9 million range from 1,700 theaters. Relativity acquired U.S. rights to the movie after its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and is releasing the film in association with IM Global and Sunlight Productions.



See what top critics are saying about Black or White:

The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer writes that it is "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." Binder's screenplay "paints a broad but credible portrait of a fractured family living on opposite sides of L.A.'s racial barrier. ... 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. ... Various plot mechanics, some of them rather heavy-handed, lead to a resolution that predictably shows how little race ultimately matters, although Black and White never panders too easily to sentiments, creating characters who are riddled with flaws but likeable all the same."

Among its "excellent" cast is its 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)." However, "While the acting is strong and the storytelling smoothly handled, there’s nothing all that distinguishing about the direction itself, and the film often has the look and feel of something made in the early 1990s, especially when it overuses a rather schmaltzy score by jazzman Terence Blanchard. Indeed, the presence of Costner (who definitely looks young for a granddad) could further situate Black and White a few decades ago, and only the occasional iPad is there to remind us that for better or for worse, race matters as much now as it did back then."

The New York Times' Stephen Holden says it "is notable for what it doesn’t try to do. It doesn’t assess America’s racial attitudes based on the headlines of the day or use its story, which revolves around custody of a biracial child, to placate or to inflame. ... [It] avoids addressing the extremes of poverty that are a root cause of crime and drug addiction. It wants to be a family drama, not a sociopolitical tract, and carefully steers around political potholes." However, "the movie is so wary of alienating audiences that only at the very end does it explode into violence" with "a contrived, unsatisfying confrontation" that is "too calculated to be cathartic. That’s the point at which Black or White surrenders to mawkish Hollywood convention and is much the worse for it. Sad to say, this is a movie that is ultimately afraid of its own shadow." Costner is "entirely convincing" in "a remarkably vanity-free performance," while Spencer "turns the strict, truth-telling Rowena into a mighty force. As in The Help, her wide-eyed stare gives her the gravity of an all-seeing sage who doesn’t miss a trick and is not afraid to speak her mind."



Los Angeles Times' Gary Goldstein asserts that Costner gives as Oscar-contending performance. "It's a pleasure to watch the veteran actor so deftly traverse the vanity-free demands of such a flawed, authentic, toughly sympathetic character." Additionally, Binder "balances the humor and pathos here for crowd-pleasing moments" and "works to address racial issues head on without shying away from the proverbial elephants in the room," but "at the same time, it can feel as if Binder is constantly attempting to square matters to justify his characters' actions, motivations and personas. ... Still, when Binder's script is at its best, such as when Elliot's unfortunate use of the N-word leads him to deliver a frank and climactic courtroom speech, we're grateful for the chances Black or White takes and for the all-important grays it so often brings to light."

The New York Observer's Red Reed writes, "Good acting and plenty to think about, but a better director than Mike Binder would have made a better film. ... The movie overstacks the deck by lavishing the alcoholic white lawyer with luxury while placing the decent, respectable black matriarch’s home across the street from a crack den. But most of the time the characters manage to dodge cliches and Binder’s screenplay admirably gives both families credibility and ballast, while a lot of weight rests unfairly on the shoulders of the actors to overcome his lackluster direction. Although it has an uneven feel and a retro look, Black or White successfully peels away the politically correct layers of false civility beneath a still-raw taboo subject in American life and gives a volatile subject contemporary relevance."

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips notes, "Black or White may not be racist, exactly, but it patronizes its African-American characters up, down and sideways, and audiences of every ethnicity, background, hue and predilection can find something to dislike. ... Strange as it sounds, Costner's character evokes a bland, boozy update on Daddy Warbucks, and there are moments in Black or White when you wonder if you're watching both film versions of the musical Annie simultaneously."