Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mike Binder | Black or White

the prize

by Douglas Messerli

Mike Bender (writer and director) Black or White / 2014
Presumably, actor Kevin Costner and writer-director Mike Binder hoped in Black or White to make an important statement on race relations in the US. However, somewhere along the way this meritable venture was hijacked by the very comparisons it attempted to make. On the surface, the two parties, black and white, who wish to raise the motherless and suddenly, as the film begins, grand-motherless young girl, Eloise Anderson (Jillian Estell), are comparably well-off, equally loving, and similarly intelligent. One is a moderately wealthy lawyer, the other a self-made entrepreneur who runs several different businesses out of her home, while owning other property. On the downside, both of the girl’s potential father-figures have problems with addiction: her birth father Reggie Davis (André Holland) is a drug addict, and her grandfather, Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) is a heavy drinker. The only major differences concern their skin color and where they choose to live. Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) lives with her large brood in two houses across the street from each other in a black neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, while Elliot lives in a modern poolside home in West Los Angeles, sending his daughter to a private school (which inexplicably was actually located in New Orleans). Grandmother Rowena, obviously is black, while grandfather Elliot is white.

We can imagine that Binder was hoping that when, after Elliot’s wife’s death, Rowena demands the child’s custody, the issues that might rise, accordingly, would not concern who could better financially care for the child or who might love her more, but would concern a difference of opinion regarding the nurturing of the child in relationship to the two cultures. Rowena hopes to help the child find her own racial roots (particularly since Eloise is black in complexion) and provide her the pleasure of growing up with other children around her. Elliot, still bitter about his own daughter’s death during the child’s birth—because of the racial differences between the couple, the Anderson’s were told nothing about the pregnancy after their daughter’s death, which might have prevented by reporting to the doctor that their child had a heart condition—wants to keep his granddaughter protected from a world of drug addiction and what he might describe (but to his credit, never does) as a “raucous” life.

    The question then, on the surface at least seems a simple one: which life would be better for the child, black or white?  The problem is that once Binder has established the limits of his disquisition, he begins applying bric-a-brac to his script that pulls the film in several directions all at once. Broadly-conceived sit-com situations alternate with scenes of overt sentimentality; verbal sparring quickly spirals into absurd name-calling. The warmth and genuine appeal of actress Octavia Spencer is squandered on her repeated attempts to manage and harangue nearly everyone she meets. The loving tenderness and caring of Costner gets lost in his sometimes bitter and nearly-always lame sarcastic asides and the boozy stumbles of walk and speech his drinking habit requires of him. The girl at the center of the story is so precious, charming, and squeaky-clean that she appears more a doll than a living kid who just lost the second-most important figure in her life. 
     For little reason, it appears, than to demonstrate that Elliot is a respectable caretaker, a new character, Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho) who, in his mastery of all trades (mathematics, languages, writing, driving, and mental therapy) is rushed into the set, but is so unbelievable that even Elliot ultimately must ask him what planet he comes from. Is the fact that Elliot hires Duvan, a genius African black, meant to act as a counterbalance for his obvious dislike of savvy, self-made Rowena, so that he can later claim he is not truly a racist?

    Indeed, once the story heats up, with Rowena determined to sue Elliot for Eliose’s custody, using the legal forces of her highly successful lawyer-son, questions that Binder perhaps had never before imagined begin to arise. What if Elliot lived in a modest white neighborhood, while Rowena preferred a mini-mansion in the Palisades? Would Rowena be as determined to take on the responsibilities of raising Eloise if the girl, taking after her mother, was of a paler complexion?  If his daughter’s lover had been an upstanding member of the community instead of how Elliot describes him (a “street nigger”) would the white grandfather be as determined to fight to keep Eliose? These and numerous others questions come to the surface simply because everything seems so set in stone the way Binder has managed it, that the plot seems absolutely contrived.

      Given the failure of Reggie to rid himself of his addiction (and despite the fact that we have no evidence that Elliot might be able give up own addiction) along with the film’s simplistic proof that Eliose’s real father is disinterested in the child since he cannot even properly spell her name in court, we quickly perceive the tale’s end long before the movie deplorably forces a showdown between Reggie and Elliot in which the former nearly kills the other in his attempt to kidnap Eloise. How are we expected, moments later, to believe that this violent intruder, upon seeing the sleeping child in her bed, suddenly apprehends his own unworthiness and runs back to save his victim—and, metaphorically speaking, the plot? 
     By the end of the movie, when both Reggie and Rowena give up their struggle for custody, and Elliot, in turn, refuses to make charges against Reggie, we realize that, even if for a while the writer had pretended that the choices for the girl were equal, through stenotype and plot distortions, everything was stacked against the black litigants all along.
     Even worse, when Elliot finally delivers his granddaughter up to Rowena for a two week stay so that he might get some “breathing space,” we recognize that poor Eloise has been perceived by both sides as more of a prize in confirming their cultural values than as someone intensely desired for herself. 
     And even if the film ends with a kind of spiritual rapprochement, we now know that the cultural differences between the two sides, as least as depicted in this work, are far deeper that we might have ever imagined.

Los Angeles, July 16, 2015


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