The good news is that Kevin Costner does some of the finest, most deeply felt work of his career as a widower lawyer fighting for custody of his biracial granddaughter in Mike Binder’s “Black and White.” The bad news is that this well-intentioned family drama never quite shakes free from its didactic, movie-of-the-week dramaturgy and a hand-holding approach to race-relations that’s as if “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” had been made only five minutes ago. The even worse news is that, in the moment of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Birther movement, a movie like this might be just what America needs right about now. Unlikely to match the $28 million worldwide take of Costner and Binder’s 2005 teaming “The Upside of Anger,” “Black” should connect with select older and urban auds, but lacks the broader crossover potential of a “Crash” or “The Help.”
Maybe because Costner became a star playing golden-boy athletes, military men and noble crusaders, it’s particularly affecting to see him at almost 60, wider of girth and thinner of hair, playing battered and broken-down. When “Black and White” opens, his Elliot Anderson has just lost his wife (Jennifer Ehle, seen in flashback) in a car crash, leaving him the sole guardian of their preteen granddaughter Eloise (spunky newcomer Jillian Estell), whose mother — Elliot’s daughter — died during childbirth. As for Eloise’s dad, Reggie (Andre Holland), he’s described as a deadbeat with a long history of drug problems who never took an interest in Eloise’s life.
The same, though, cannot be said for Reggie’s mother, Rowena (a solid, if typecast, Octavia Spencer), a big-hearted love machine with a thriving real estate career and a sprawling extended family all living with her or nearby in South L.A. With Elliot now on his own and sulking about in an alcoholic depression, Rowena, a.k.a. Grandma Wee Wee, quite reasonably proposes that Eloise should spend more time with her and the girl’s cousins. And when an indignant Elliot balks at the mere suggestion of shared custody, Grandma Wee Wee takes Grandpa Honkey to court.
When a liberal-minded director like Binder makes a movie entitled “Black and White,” it’s a safe bet that the title is meant ironically, and that by the time the end credits roll we’ll have been sufficiently reminded that, where race is concerned, there are only shades of grey. But for much of its running time, Binder’s film traffics in the very dichromatic terms it seeks to avoid, making facile juxtapositions of Elliot’s antiseptic West L.A. existence (where the only faces of color are those polishing the floors and trimming the perfectly manicured hedgerows) against the boisterous rainbow coalition that thrives south of the 10 Freeway (complete with the nice lesbian couple who live across the street).
Things get a touch more complicated when Rowena’s lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) arrives on the scene and suggests that the quickest road to a successful custody trial is to paint Elliot as a closeted racist, but a racist nevertheless. Then Reggie abruptly reappears, claiming to be a reformed man, and takes up the custody petition himself, which only stokes Elliot’s ire and leads to an (all too predictable) Donald Sterling-style outburst at the least opportune moment. But does that make Elliot a racist? Somewhere in “Black and White” lies the seed of a more challenging, provocative film about how the proverbial “race card” gets played in the courtroom and in the media, and whether or not one can dislike someone of another race — in our hyper-p.c. times — without being judged a bigot. But whenever Binder seems on the verge of trekking into genuinely murky sociopolitical waters, he falls back on convention, letting the film devolve into an enervating, overlong courtroom drama that makes “Gran Torino” seem like “Do the Right Thing.”
Because every time we see Reggie, he’s either missing an appointed rendezvous with Eloise or surrounded by bad-news homies from his past, the movie never seriously entertains the notion that he might have turned over a new leaf (a particular shame given that Holland, the brilliant young star of “The Knick” on Cinemax, deserves a more complex role to play). Nor do we ever really suspect that Elliot is a bad guy, despite his obvious attachment to the bottle (which Binder emphasizes by having Costner tipsily tote one around in seemingly all his scenes). And when Binder doesn’t know how resolve things, he stages an incredibly hokey violent confrontation that, like the one in Alan Parker’s otherwise excellent family drama “Shoot the Moon,” feels like a cheap, unearned way of bringing down the curtain.
Throughout, Costner is the glue holding this balsa-wood enterprise together, finding shades of nobility and moral compromise in a character who’s been written as too much of a milquetoast Archie Bunker — a conduit for white suburbanites with too many deadbolts on their doors. Unlike a lot of stars once celebrated for their matinee-idol genes, he’s unafraid to look old and somewhat tired onscreen, and to play against his ingratiating everyman charms. Even saddled with subpar material, he achieves a state of actorly grace.