Kevin Costner’s Black or White is sentimental in a good way. After all, it works in the spirit of Michael Jackson’s 1991 single “Black or White,” the most uncompromised of all uplifting pop songs. Jackson declared “I’m not gonna spend my life being a color!” And when he sang “I ain’t scared of your brother / I ain’t scared of no sheets,” he opposed the antinomies of either ethnic solidarity (Afrocentric “blackness”) or ethnic hostility (Ku Klux Klan–style white supremacy).
Costner applies Jackson’s pop principles to playing the role of Elliot Anderson, a wealthy white Los Angeles lawyer. Elliot’s recent bereavement leaves him as guardian of his biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), which means he already lives America’s blended-nation experience, not the fatuous “post-racial” notion but a reality that confirms Jackson’s dream of unity as memorably shown in the iconographic sequence of his extraordinary “Black or White” music video — still the finest achievement of that genre — that morphed all mankind’s ethnic and sexual physical characteristics.
The title of Costner’s film makes a statement; yet, like Jackson’s hit record, it also poses several questions: First about family, then character, then social values, and lastly about race. That may seem like backward priorities, given the way race has recently dominated film culture (race keeps coming up, always as a controversy). But the order of the film’s interests suggests Costner’s integrity regarding showbiz moralizing.
It is through the middle-aged attorney’s responsibility for a young girl’s education, grooming, and well-being that Black or White conveys facts of equality, acts of loving. Ethnic difference becomes a dilemma when Elliot is brought to court by the child’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer), a black working-class woman from L.A.’s inner city, who makes a counter-demand for custody. Elliot is confronted by race problems that he has managed to avoid, being protected by his class advantages, but they are imposed by society’s ideological pressure.
Writer-director Mike Binder contrives trial scenes with an Oprah-like judge and a subplot about Rowena’s son Reggie (Andre Holland), the junkie who changed Elliot’s family structure then failed his duties as both son and father. But these scenes are not totally conventional; there’s a complex, Jacksonian ethic to Rowena’s warm matriarchal family life (when she brings Eloise’s cousins for a pool party at Elliot’s mansion, it idealizes the public-pool controversy of Terence Howard’s fact-based civil-rights film Pride) juxtaposed with Elliot’s law-team strategy (a Southern-accented lawyer advises, “We can get uglier than they can”).
The historical echoes of these scenes are cleverly updated when Elliot vents his anger to Reggie (“Goddam crackhead inconsiderate asshole, heh, heh”) and when Rowena tells Reggie, “Pull yourself together!” adding violent emphasis. Elliot’s humor and Rowena’s anger display a dual exasperation that authenticates Black or White, making it the first movie to dramatize the modern phenomenon of grandparents stressed with guardianship when the intermediate generation has failed — a national, even global, phenomenon of family strain and social breakdown that politicians rarely address.
Instead of appealing to the politically correct fallacies of Selma and 12 Years a Slave (where mere topicality passes for complexity), this film reminds Americans of the humanity they have in common. Even its hoariest cliché (a white being saved by a ne’er-do-well black) supplies a sink-or-swim metaphor that appeals to the audience’s best thoughts. Black or White doesn’t sanction white or black self-pity. It de-sensationalizes Hollywood’s hot-topics habits. Even Elliot and Rowena’s interpersonal tension (his drunkenness versus her overbearing righteousness) comically balances their particular generational tension. Emphasizing character over easily exploitable social and racial topics is a sign of Costner and Binder’s sense of decency.
Decency is what we’ve lost in the current era, when filmmakers try to shame audiences into praising the exacerbation of our nation’s historical racial tensions. (That’s why Black or White was dismissed in the current Oscar race; despite a one-week qualifying release last December, it lacked Selma’s trendiness.) Costner’s career includes many films (Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams, The War, Thirteen Days, Tin Cup, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Swing Vote) with respectable humanist perspectives. Here, Costner and Binder articulate the issue of racial identity as a universal concern but, again in the spirit of Jackson, with a personal solution.
It takes bravery like Jackson’s for Costner and Binder to go up against the strange phenomena of whites who no longer believe in themselves but assume guilt, and of blacks who assume entitlement. Both are typically disingenuous and untrustworthy progressive positions on racial problems, as in Selma. (Mpho Kaoho playing a polyglot African immigrant who tutors Eloise and says, “I don’t watch television. I’m afraid for me it is not a nourishing form of entertainment” ,may be a satire on this Obama-era tendency. It was Costner’s Swing Vote that had the immortal joke “I can’t be racist; I voted for Obama.”)
In tribute to Michael Jackson’s dream, Rowena’s bid for family ethnic continuity is no more valid than Elliot’s; securing his granddaughter’s happiness doesn’t need defense. For that very humane reason, Elliot can meet unfounded accusations of racism with startling, confident honesty: “How am I supposed to respond to that?” Costner’s authenticity is part of his finest film work in years.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.