'Black and White': Toronto Review

Black and White - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Black and White - H 2014

A broad but touching dramedy about the racial barriers that divide us and the family ties that bind

Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer headline writer-director Mike Binder's latest feature, which world premiered in Toronto

Black and 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 an ass whooping Octavia Spencer in a battle for custody over their beloved granddaughter, this well-performed and occasionally amusing affair has a distinctively 90’s 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. Star wattage could eventually help give these colors a decent boost at the box office, though they’ll most likely run brightest on the small screen.

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).

“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, especially after Elliot drops an n-bomb that’s used against him in court. Various plot mechanics, some of them rather heavy-handed (Is Reggie really dumb enough to smoke crack on the porch in front of his mother’s house?), 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.

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 (who he worked with 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.

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 1990’s, especially when it overuses a rather schmaltzy score by jazzman Terence Blanchard (Inside Man). 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.

Production company: Treehouse Films
Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Anthony Mackie
Director, screenwriter: Mike Binder
Producers: Mike Bonder, Kevin Costner, Todd Lewis
Executive producer: Cassian Elwes
Director of photography: Russ T. Alsobrook
Production designer: Pipo Wintter
Costume designer: Claire Breaux
Editor: Roger Nygard
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Sales: IM Global

PG-13 rating, 121 minutes