3 Stars – Thought-Provoking
Recognizing that the human race is diverse and individuals are unique requires us to deliberately look beneath superficial differences to examine the character of the person. But navigating this racial whitewater is not easy. We need help in recognizing what is in fact racist and what is human. Helping us in that understanding is Mike Binder’s Black or White. As both director and writer, Binder creates a contrast of the mutual brokenness of a middle-aged white grandfather and a young black father.
At the center of the tale is Eloise Anderson (Jillian Estell), a charming little girl who embodies both the black and white worlds as the daughter of a white mother and a black father. Her father, Reggie Davis (André Holland), abandoned her when she was an infant and her mother died in childbirth. Adopted by her white grandmother and grandfather, we join the tale when Eloise is eight and her grandmother has just been tragically killed in an automobile accident. It is at that moment that her secure, upper-middle class home life instantly changes as her grandmother’s full-time care of her suddenly ends and her grandfather Elliott (Kevin Costner) takes over.
Creating well-developed complex characters, Binder’s tale finds the good and the bad qualities in all the adults who step in to care for her. Juxtaposing the alcohol addiction of Elliott with the crack addiction of Reggie, concern is justified as Eloise’s black grandmother Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) gets her brother, a successful attorney, to file for her to have full custody. But it is also clear that Rowena lives in as much denial as does Elliott and Reggie as she demonstrates a naïve codependency with her son and a racial prejudice against Elliott.
The conversations in the courtroom, the South-Central Los Angeles home of Rowena and the suburban home of Elliott are revealing. Weaving together realistic and honest communication with racial, legal, corporate and gender stereotypes, it is clear that even with good hearts it is difficult to share life, let alone a grandchild.
As the title implies, we are not Black or White, we are in fact a weave of black and white and brown and all the other varieties of humanity. Having far more in common with each other than that which divides us, humanity still struggles to understand this new union that artists like Binder are reflecting. To encourage us in the struggle to understand and appreciate one another is a worthy purpose for the arts and this film moves us forward in both.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When Eloise chooses to stay with her grandfather, she still wants to bring her father into the picture. Why do you think her father-wound that needed to be healed by her father could not be healed by her grandfather?
2. It is difficult to imagine the grief that Elliott experienced when he lost both his daughter and his wife. The film shows him to be a man without friends or a faith-community with whom he could share his pain. How different do you think his life would have been if he had a church and friends who were not merely co-workers? Who would you turn to if you experienced such loss?
3. The portrayal of the black lifestyle as being surrounded by family and the white lifestyle as being isolated could be seen as either an honest description or a stereotype. Which do you think it is and why do you answer as you do?