Black or White
Christian Movie Review
Granted, I get particularly emotional when I watch films (I tend to invest my emotions in a movie wholeheartedly), but other people have reported the same reaction.
Because in the opening scene Kevin Costner (#KevinCostner, #modernwest), with some of the best acting of his career, introduces us to the main character Elliot, a broken man who is standing in a hospital hallway, looking like a lost child because he has just learned that his wife has passed away.
And it just rips your heart out.
This tragedy then propels Elliot into the plot of the film, as summarized on IMDB: “A grieving widower is drawn into a custody battle over his granddaughter, whom he helped raise her entire life.”
It was a wonderfully powerful film, and it breaches the topic of racial tension in America in an unusually balanced way: yes, it examines the racial prejudices in our society, but it is equally critical of the way people use knee-jerk accusations of racism to manipulate others and gain power over them. Between these two extremes the film searches restlessly for reconciliation in the character’s relationships.
What’s amazing is that the film’s plot was inspired by a true story.
More on all of that in a moment, but first…
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: None.
Violence/Gore: A man attacks another man with a knife. A man gets hit in the head with a mug and has a bleeding head wound. He then falls into a pool and gets tangled in the pool cover.
Language: One prominent f-word, and a wide smattering of other obscenities, including several misuses of “God” and “Jesus Christ.” A character uses the n-word in referring to an African-American, and it is meant for shock value and also to provide a crucial plot point.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: The protagonist of the film is an alcoholic, so there are many scenes of drinking. A character smokes a cigarette in another scene and is referred to as a junkie several times.
Frightening/Intense Content: The opening of the film is very sorrowful, as it begins in a hospital just after a husband has just been told that his wife has died after suffering injuries from a car accident.
(Review continues below)
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“…grief…feels like someone has punched you in the stomach and knocked the air out of you; but the air never really finds it way back in — not right away, maybe not ever. Kevin Costner nailed that aspect of grief perfectly — sort of dazed, concussed, gasping for air whenever (and however) he can, barely hanging on to the threads of daily life, and barely hanging on to the only family he has left: his granddaughter.”
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Director Mike Binder (“Reign Over Me,” “The Upside of Anger,” #MikeBinderJokes) unwinds this story with perfect pacing and tone. The superb casting doesn’t hurt either, and neither do the award-worthy performances of every actor who appeared on-screen. This film just fires on all cylinders.
And Kevin’s performance as the grieving, alcoholic widower gets under your skin. He gives the character a weary but tense, boiling-under-his-skin wrath that crescendos toward the climax of the film at the perfect speed. I’ve experienced grief from losing an immediate family member unexpectedly, and it feels like someone has punched you in the stomach and knocked the air out of you; but the air never really finds it way back in — not right away, maybe not ever. Kevin Costner nailed that aspect of grief perfectly — sort of dazed, concussed, gasping for air whenever (and however) he can, barely hanging on to the threads of daily life, and barely hanging on to the only family he has left: his granddaughter.
What a great cast. Seriously: Costner, Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), Anthony Mackie (The Falcon from “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” probably my favorite movie from 2014), Bill Burr (“Date Night”), Gillian Jacobs (“Community”), a cut-you-in-the-heart performance from newcomer child star Jillian Estell, and the perfect pitching from Mpho Koaho (“Falling Skies”), André Holland (“Selma”), and, well, everyone else.
The way Mike Binder wrote Mpho Koaho’s home tutor character Duvan was perfect for the film, adding just enough comic relief to balance out the crushing sorrow of Costner’s widower.
Both Burr and Mackie ruled that courtroom as extremely convincing lawyers. And they had the right kind of chemistry with the judge (who was well played by Paula Newsome), which is always important in a courtroom drama. They both played their parts with carefully controlled energy, never going over-the-top.
Worldview and Themes of Redemption
America needs this film right now. Yes, there is racism in America, but hasn’t our nation made tremendous strides? Yes, our culture — even Hollywood itself — still wrestles with the hard-to-kill ghost of racial prejudice, but there is also a fair amount of people out there, especially in the media and in politics, who use flippant, knee-jerk accusations of bigotry to bully and manipulate others.
This movie looks at both problems. It strikes a precise balance. And it comes to a convincing conclusion: we need to deescalate our country’s racial tensions by being quick to listen and slow to accuse, quick to trust and slow to attack, and, most importantly, we need to forgive others and say sorry when we’ve done something wrong.
All of that might be a tall order — everything on that list requires a great deal of authentic, getting-your-hands-dirty humility — but this film provides a vivid parable of what it looks like when people choose to listen, forgive, and lay down their pride.
And, amazingly, according to the director’s statement by Mike Binder in the production notes, this movie is inspired by a true story that happened in Mr. Binder’s life, as he explains:
“Black or White is inspired by a situation in my own life. Several years ago, my wife’s sister passed away at 33. She had a seven-year old son, who is biracial. His father is out of the picture, but his father’s family lives in South Central, Los Angeles; they are terrific and very involved in his life. But my wife and I, along with several members of her family — as well as several members of his father’s family — all ended up raising him together. In many ways, he grew up in two completely different worlds: Santa Monica and South Central. He was a happy kid and everyone else made a much bigger deal out of the fact that he is half white and half black. But when we’d make the trip to South Central to drop him off for a weekend or pick him up, I would be reminded of just how drastically different every little thing was from our home in Santa Monica. Fortunately, they didn’t have a problem with us; his grandmother loved my wife, Diane. But I imagine that if something happened to Diane, I don’t think they’d be so happy with just me raising him.
“So I wanted to play out that scenario and make a movie that may spark a conversation about how we move forward with regard to race relations in this country, while at the same time allowing audiences an honest look inside two vastly different families as they are united by their shared love and concern for the child that binds them together — because at its core, Black or White is truly about family.”
Despite the grittier PG-13 qualities of this movie, I believe teenagers and adults will find real treasures in this film. They will see what the hard road of forgiveness and reconciliation can look like in very difficult circumstances, and they will be inspired to do what Jesus commanded His followers to do: love others unconditionally.
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