Black or White

Writer-director Mike Binder’s first Kevin Costner movie since The Upside of Anger, in 2005, reportedly is a film Costner had to fund himself in order to get it made. That’s not necessarily because Black or White involves cultural tensions within mixed-race extended families boiling over into ugly legal action, and studios just didn’t want to go there. Maybe it’s more because Binder’s broadness of reach becomes a kind of tonal confusion — a racial melodrama, but with cute laugh cues. Costner plays a newly widowed, heavy-drinking L.A. lawyer whose custody of his mixed-race granddaughter (Jillian Estell) gets challenged by the girl’s formerly absent father (André Holland) and paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer). So the main conflict becomes a parenting preference test between two people with debilitating chemical dependencies: one an older wealthy white alcoholic, the other a poor young black crack addict. And Binder seems to have taken the dubious position that addiction is simply and only a moral failing, thus only as forgivable as external circumstances, including race-related privileges, allow. The father’s lawyer (Anthony Mackie) actually calling him a cliché doesn’t quite mitigate our sense that in fact, dramatically speaking, he is, any more than Costner’s mea culpa in a climactic speech quite makes up for calling him something much worse. In these moments especially, the comic relief seems way out of tune, but the sincerity seems genuine, and touching. Points must be deducted from any film that relegates the fine actor Jennifer Ehle to the role of a ghost who only appears in wordless flashbacks; but also added for casting Paula Newsome as a presiding judge whose humanity elevates and smooths out some otherwise very uneven material.