Movie Review - Black or White

This film reminded me of Losing Isaiah (1995), which was about a custody battle over a black child between the black parent and the white parent where the black parent was poor and had drug problems and the white parent was wealthy and had raised the black child for most of the time. This film is essentially the same. There are slight differences of course. Writer-director Mike Binder has the black child as a little girl. In Losing Isaiah, the custody fight is between the biological mother and the adoptive mother. Here, Binder pits the maternal grandfather who is white against the paternal grandmother who is black.

Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves) stars as Elliot Anderson, a Los Angeles lawyer whose daughter died after giving birth to Eloise, a beautiful biracial girl. Because Eloise's father is a drug addict, Elliot and his wife Carol ended up raising Eloise. At the start of this film, Carol dies in a car accident, leaving Elliot to raise Eloise by himself. Given his work schedule and drinking problem, he struggles to do so.

Octavia Spencer (The Help and Fruitvale Station) co-stars as Rowena Jeffers, a small-business owner who despite her son's drug addiction wants to sue Elliot for custody of Eloise, so that Eloise can spend more time with the black side of her family. She knows that Elliot hate Eloise's father. He does care for the rest of the family, but there seems to be a distance between them. Rowena is a brass and loud woman who likes having a large family around her, which includes all her direct biological relatives.

André Holland (42 and Selma) plays Reggie Davis, the drug-addicted father of Eloise who comes in between the custody fight and creates challenges on both sides. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plays Jeremiah Jeffers, Rowena's brother who is a lawyer and who helps Rowena with her legal case.

The film has some really interesting moments that deal with race relations and culture clashes head-on or in very direct ways. Often, they're tense or sometimes comical like Duvan, played by Mpho Koaho. Duvan is the African tutor whom Elliot hires to work with Eloise and him. It's not as good as Losing Isaiah though. What was great about that 1995 film was that like the end quote illuminates the adults have to let a little child lead them. It wasn't about who was the better parent. It was about what was best for the child.

This film does more of the reverse. It becomes about largely who is the better parent. Is Elliot the better parent? Or, is Reggie the better parent? Unfortunately, the child in between them gets lost. The titular child in Losing Isaiah was never lost. The child was more front and center, and the child felt like a more developed character, despite being younger than Eloise. Eloise, here, feels more like a prop than a person. For example, Isaiah has scenes by himself in his movie. Eloise doesn't.

I'm not sure of Costner's performance when he's playing drunk. Yet, he's given a great monologue toward the end on the witness stand. Spencer is given one great speech in the film too, but I'm not sure Binder properly establishes her relationships with her son or even anyone else to any great depth. Costner and Spencer are fun when bickering with each other.

Is is just me, or was anyone else bothered with Elliot's nickname for Eloise being "puppy"? I know Quvenzhané Wallis' character in Beasts of the Southern Wild was "hushpuppy," but referring to a little black girl as an animal rubbed me the wrong way in this case, especially when said girl then barks like one.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, drug use and drinking, and for a fight.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.


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