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Confronting the issue of Black or White

Writer/director Mike Binder’s Black or White is not the most penetrating or potent examination of contemporary race relations. It’s very much a big-screen soap opera, and sometimes it falls prey to the glibness that is a Binder trademark.

Yet it’s also a disarming film, one that admittedly wears its heart on its sleeve and one that hits upon some relevant truths, not just about race relations but also about human relationships.

Kevin Costner, who also financed the film (earning a producer credit), eschews the action trappings recent big-screen outings Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill (both 2014) and flexes his dramatic muscles as Elliot Anderson, an affluent attorney who has recently lost his wife in a car crash.

Elliot had been sharing custody of his mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (charming newcomer Jillian Estell) with her paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) after Elliot’s teenaged daughter died shortly after giving birth. Eloise’s absentee father Reggie (André Holland) has been dogged by addiction issues his entire life.

So too is Elliot, who’s been hitting the bottle hard enough in his grief that Rowena wants full custody of Eloise, a decision that inevitably infuriates Elliot, especially when he learns that Reggie is back in the picture. Yes, Black or White has its share of courtroom drama, too.

Although Spencer occasionally plays it a little broad, this is easily her biggest and best role since her Oscarwinning turn in The Help (2011). It’s a pleasure to watch her and Costner successfully tackle meaty dramatic roles.

Holland brings strength to what could have been a stock role, and reliable Anthony Mackie plays Rowena’s nephew, conveniently enough a high-powered attorney. Winston-Salem’s Jennifer Ehle is seen in flashbacks and dream sequences as Elliot’s late wife, and Mpho Koaho is charming as Duvan, an African emigre who becomes tutor to Eloise — and, indeed, to Elliot himself. In some ways, Black or White is this generation’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967). The film could have taken a harder, edgier approach, and sometimes it opts for an easy (or easier) way out of its dilemmas. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining, well-acted, warm-hearted and not without its valid observations about race and respect. It’s not a perfect film, but it can’t easily be dismissed, either.

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