Based on a true story, “Black or White” dares to explore American race relations in a whole different light.
Elliott (Kevin Costner) has just learned that his wife was killed in a tragic auto accident. Their only daughter had already died giving birth to her daughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), whom Elliott and his wife were raising, but, as usual, it was more complicated than that.
Eloise’s dad, Reggie (Andre Holland), is a drug addict who’s never wanted to have much to do with his daughter. But Reggie’s mom, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), isn’t about to give up so easily on her granddaughter. She’s a successful businesswoman who’s already the matriarch of her family, but try as she might, she can’t control Reggie. She can’t make him want to take responsibility for Eloise. But she can sue for custody herself, and she does, using as her attorney her brother, a high-powered lawyer in his own right. The trouble is, he can hardly hide his contempt for Reggie, calling him the very stereotype of the black man that racist whites perpetuate.
Eloise, for her part, is a very sweet little girl who, very naturally, doesn’t want to leave the only home she’s known. She realizes she’s lost her (white) grandmother, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she feels she has to go live with her other (black) grandmother. She loves her “papa” Elliott. He calls her “puppy.” He insists that she brush her teeth and do her homework. She asks him to brush her unruly hair, which he attempts, comically. Though Elliott is a successful attorney himself, he knows enough to take himself off this custody case and rely on his professional colleagues. The trouble is, he doesn’t see things nearly as clearly when it comes to his own drinking problem. Since his daughter’s death, and now his wife’s, it’s gotten much worse. He tells himself he’s not an alcoholic, which may literally be true. He’s really more of grieving man in a lot of pain with an anger management problem. He’s hired a housekeeper for himself and a tutor for his granddaughter, who doubles as a driver when Elliott’s had too much to drink.
Yes, we wind up in the courtroom over this, because neither side really wants to give in to the other, and you can’t split the girl. You can split her time, of course, but her primary residence still has to be decided. And the viewer gets to choose, in this midst of this unique little culture war, which side should get Eloise, and therefore which side won’t.
The most dramatic moment is when Elliott takes the stand and is badgered into ad-libbing about his real views on race. He admits that when he sees a black man, the first thing he thinks is that he’s black. But he can’t help that any more than he can help seeing a beautiful woman and glancing first at her breasts. He shrugs and admits he’s flawed (read: normal). But Elliott says that what’s important is not the first thing he thinks, but the second and third and fourth thing, and how those interact with his actions over the whole trajectory of his life.
Yes, all the main characters are flawed (with the possible exception of Eloise, who only pouts once). But these people are real, and they’re all trying to do what they think is best for Eloise. Eloise, for her part, draws pictures in her room of the two sides of her family together, holding hands beside her house under a shining sun.
Ah, if it were only that easy. But the judge’s choice in this movie for Eloise’s custody is simple: black or white. It’s just that neither is all of who Eloise is. And both sides supply vital parts of the person she’s meant to become. Just like both sides of all of our families. Including the family of the household of God.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.