‘Black or White’ Review: Could Have Used Some Gray

'Black or White'

Movie Rating:


‘Black or White’ takes on the messy issue of contemporary race relations in America. The filmmakers so desperately want this to be a Big Important Movie about Big Important Things that they forget to bother with more simple concerns like credibility or coherency. It’s a whale of a melodrama filled with raging performances, and tries so hard to appeal to all sides of the issue that it satisfies none of them.

Instead, the filmmakers just pile on one ridiculous plot turn and histrionic speech after the next, hoping that that audience will be pummeled into thinking they’ve seen something important. Simply put, the movie is a complete mess and one that’s particularly hard to take thanks to all the self-importance that everyone involved invested into the project.

The film opens with main character Elliot (Kevin Costner) sitting sullenly in a hospital waiting to hear that his wife is dead. So, it’s immediately clear we won’t be having any fun with this movie. Instead, we’ll be forced to feel things with a blunt-force trauma approach to dramatic storytelling. After chatting a bit with his buddy (comedian Bill Burr), Elliot heads home to tell his granddaughter (an impressively non-mawkish Jillian Estell) that they’ll be living alone now. From there, Elliot visits the child’s grandmother (Octavia Spencer), a successful businesswoman who would like the girl to spend more time with her side of the family now. Elliot refuses because the girl’s father (André Holland) is a longtime drug addict who never bothered to spend time with his daughter after her mother died in childbirth.

The grandma is convinced that her son has finally cleaned up and talks her lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) into taking Elliot to court for custody of the child. The case might go her way too, especially given that Elliot is an alcoholic whose boozing has only revved up after the recent tragedy. And with that, let the high-strung race relations courtroom drama commence.

As you may have gathered from the plot summary, this is a big flailing melodrama that shoots for the fences. The movie was conceived purely so that actors can yell at each other about issues for a while until they all head to court and deliver big speeches about the same issues in a more formal setting. Even with that, you have no idea just how melodramatic the movie really gets. You see, it comes from writer/director Mike Binder, whose previous movies such as ‘Reign Over Me’ and ‘The Upside of Anger’ never dared to approach subtlety because it would get in the way of all the buttons that he planned to push.

On top of all of the gratingly manipulative material mentioned above, ‘Black or White’ also sees Holland return to crack before heading to court, Costner drop the n-bomb, ludicrously aggressive testimonies, and visions of Costner’s wife as a ghost. It’s as if every time Binder wrote a new draft of the script, he decided to cram in a little more sensationalistic hogwash because he was worried that the movie wasn’t nauseating enough.

Well, at least he can relax now. His final film is histrionic to the point of self-parody, even stooping so far as to feature a scene in which Costner calls Holland a cliché without the writer realizing that he was the one who made the character a cliché.

In fairness, the movie isn’t as completely devoid of interest as I’m making it sound. The cast includes a pretty impressive stack of names, and they’re all too talented to completely blow this. There is a tiny bit of enjoyment to be found in watching the likes of Costner, Spencer, Mackie and Burr spar with each other. Likewise, those with a sweet tooth for bad movies must stand back in awe at Binder’s uncanny ability to somehow make his movie worse and more melodramatic with every scene as the story grinds on. (Seriously, the final 10-15 minutes are mind-bogglingly over-the-top and on-the-nose.) Even the filmmaker’s attempts to slip comic relief into the script somehow only make things worse, adding slapstick silliness that clashes awkwardly with the drama rather than smoothing over the edges.

This is a movie that seems to get everything wrong. Binder muddies his issues, fumbles his drama, embarrasses himself with every attempt at comedy, and can’t even be bothered to pace the story properly. Maybe the filmmaker was so worried about serving his self-important ambitions that he over-wrote the script and lost whatever it was he was going for. Or maybe this is exactly the movie that Binder wanted to make. If so, that’s a truly terrifying thought, because not only did he manage to talk this many talented actors into helping him get the movie made, he’ll likely be able to do it again in the future.

Somehow, we live in a world where Mike Binder is allowed to keeping making movies despite his track record, yet Orson Welles couldn’t talk anyone into financing his projects for the last few decades of his life. Yep, Hollywood sure is a wacky place.


  1. How Mike Binder has a career in Hollywood at all mystifies me. I tried watching his ‘Mind of the Married Man’ sitcom on HBO back when that was on, and found it utterly uninteresting.

    • Phil Brown

      I know. He must have some pretty incriminating pictures of someone big in Hollywood stashed away in a safety deposit box or something. There’s no rational explanation for his continuing career.

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