It’s the question that begins every chess match, and what an unfortunate chess match it is.
“Black or White” stars Kevin Costner as a man trying to do what’s best for his bi-racial granddaughter after tragedy strikes his home. However finding “What’s right” becomes complicated when the racial divide between her two family groups rears it’s ugly head in a fight for whose family she would be better off in. It’s a movie that doesn’t shy away from the complexities and depth of race relations in modern America, and it certainly seems to have a lot to say. But does it say it in a way that works as a well told story? For the most part, I think so.
First off, Costner’s great in this. I haven’t necessarily been a huge Costner fan through his expansive career. Overall he strikes me as a mediocre actor bolstered by a truly charismatic presence. Sure he has a moment here or there, but he’s one of those guys who I never really see fully disappear into a role. Yet here I truly bought him as the man. Sure, it’s still that Costner charm, but he’s going to some places I really didn’t realize he had in him. Plus the cast around him is top notch, with Octavia Spencer worth a shout out as well. In fact, the interactions between Spencer and Costner are some of my favorite parts of the film. The movie also gets major points from me for being willing to go to some very raw and real subject matter about race relations in America. It doesn’t just scratch the surface on this stuff, it wants to dig deep into uncomfortable but necessary territory in a way that should really stir some thoughts and discussions among it’s audience. And not just with race either, the movie touches on family, alcoholism, grief, and the difficulty of change, and all while serving the story and characters here. Plus there’s some really great courtroom stuff here, which for whatever reason, always seems to get me, maybe its just cause I love me some good gaveling.
And yet for everything that works in this movie, and a lot of it does, I still came away a bit disappointed by the end product. It’s one of those strange pieces of art where the whole just doesn’t seem to live up to the sum of it’s parts. If I had to put my finger on it, I think the movie, though willing to go to the hard questions, never seems to want to come up with any hard answers. It’s almost a sleight of hand trick to finesse the audience into a feel good ending, without really dealing with the true life ramifications of the moments of the story. In many ways it’s a bit of a fortune cookie movie, where the wisdom seems profound, but is too broad and oversimplified to really make much of a difference.
Overall, “Black or White” is a well made film with some great performances that is willing to explore some of the most difficult aspects to race relations in America. If only it had found a way to land it’s story with a bit more conviction and a bit less fluff it might have found it’s way to understanding with more than a B.