For everyone who knows there’s a lot to say about racism, but has absolutely no idea what to say about it, there’s Black or White, the perfect Sunday-afternoon fodder for starting conversations that will go absolutely nowhere and leave everyone involved feeling as if they’ve done their due diligence. The title alone makes no firm commitments to anything other than forcing the conversation: Why strive for the sort of profound conclusions that might actually help foster real change when you can just name-check the usual stereotypical talking points?
Allegedly based on a true story, but frequently suggesting an adaptation of the comments section of any neighborhood crime watch Facebook post, the film stars Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a wealthy and recently widowed grandfather who, having also lost his own daughter during childbirth, has been left totally alone to raise preteen Eloise (Jillian Estell). Elliot’s wife isn’t even cold in the ground before Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), suggests to Elliot that maybe their charge, a burgeoning boarding-school pixie in training, ought to at least spend some time bonding with her side of the family down in South Central. Elliot, who has a bar in his living room that would suit a four-star hotel, even though he apparently only drinks Glenmorangie, drowns his sorrows while Rowena draws up custodial papers to take Eloise on full time. The situation is tense enough even before Eloise’s junkie father shows up to Elliot’s gated community, and there isn’t a single trick writer-director Mike Binder hasn’t lifted from the Paul Haggis playbook.
True to the Crash screenwriter’s enduring influence, no mistake is left unpunished, and no virtue is left unchallenged by a split-second lapse in judgment. Costner and Spencer both rise to the occasion, giving two of the most professionally nuance-free performances of their careers—Spencer twitching and squawking her way through each grisly courtroom interjection, and Costner unabashedly embodying Gran Torino-model Clint Eastwood, scowling and darting around the dubious thin line between “racism” and un-sugarcoated “truthfulness” that only anti-P.C. wingnuts actually believe exists.
Black or White openly wears kid gloves; it’s the Goodnight Moon of Crash descendants. But even though it aims for an aura of impartiality (the end credits are accompanied by an earnest song that opens: “She’s got the best of both worlds”), only one character is given the chance to answer for—and, pointedly, not atone over—his one-time use of the n-word. No points for guessing.