Race relations: ‘Black or White’ offers an awkward take on a custody battle

Black or White opens in theaters on Friday.

Two stars

Black or White Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell. Directed by Mike Binder. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Writer-director Mike Binder achieves an impressive feat in Black or White, depicting a courtroom battle between a middle-aged white lawyer and a working-class African-American family, and making the rich white guy into the underdog. That kind of deck-stacking pervades Binder’s clumsy melodrama, which stars Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, who’s been raising his biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) since her mother (his daughter) died in childbirth. When Elliot’s wife (Jennifer Ehle, seen only in ridiculously beatific dream sequences) dies, Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) decides to sue for custody of the girl.

“This isn’t about black and white—this is about right and wrong!” Elliot bellows at one point, and when Binder occasionally pays attention to that idea, the movie can be poignant about adults losing sight of children’s interests when battling with each other. But mostly the movie is an excuse for Binder to set up straw-man arguments and tear them down disingenuously, with Elliot as the flawed but noble savior of his young granddaughter. None of the African-American characters is treated nearly as well, and even though the movie ends by affirming openness and tolerance, it gets there only at the expense of developing real characters beyond its single privileged perspective.

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