Sunday, February 1, 2015

Black or White

Director: Mike Binder

Cast: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Anthony Mackie,  Andre Holland, Mpho Koaho, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr Gillian Jacobs

Review by James Colt Harrison

Race relations are not always black or white, and Kevin Costner’s new movie attempts to show the intricacies of having a mixed-race family.

When his daughter dies in childbirth, granddad Costner and his wife  (Jennifer Ehle) are left to raise Eloise (played charmingly by newcomer Jillian Estell). In another stunning turn of fate, Costner’s loving wife is subsequently killed in a car crash soon thereafter. Grieving terribly for both his losses, he turns to the bottle of Scotch for solace. However, luckily for him, it doesn’t interfere with his raising of the beautiful little girl. In fact, he becomes her “mom” and learns to do girly things like tie a bow in her hair and get her off to school in time. He clearly adores little “Eloise.”

Costner, who plays prominent lawyer Elliot Anderson, wants to retain complete custody of his granddaughter Eloise, but he is getting stiff opposition from Rowena Jeffers (an incredibly funny and dramatic Octavia Spencer) the grandma from the other side of the family. Her son Reggie (an excellent Andre Holland) is a recovering drug addict and is the absent father of Eloise. Both sides of the family love the little girl and both want the best for her. That is, Rowena wants custody and is stepping in for her shiftless and irresponsible son. He is definitely not father material and shows no interest in parenting. Rowena has a blind eye toward her son who she thinks is turning over a new leaf and going “straight” by dispensing with drug use.

Both families want custody of little Eloise and both have legitimate reasons for wanting her to grow up with various family members. Rowena is a force to reckon with, and she files suit in court to gain custody. She hires her nephew---a hotshot lawyer--- to look after her interests. Anthony Mackie plays Rowena’s tough nephew Jeremiah to defend her family concerns. Mackie, as usual, is excellent as the smart, clever attorney who will make the drug-addicted father Reggie look practically like a saint in court. Judge Cummins’ personality, played with humor and a no-nonsense outlook, is deftly captured by actress Paula Newsome. As well as being a sharp looker, she commands respect for her believable portrayal of a fair and impartial judge.

In some of his best acting in years, Costner takes the stand and explains his thoughts and feelings and admits his mistakes in dealing with race relations. Although he insists the case is not about race relations, it must figure into the equation. It’s a terrific scene, Costner runs the gamut of emotions, and he gives Spencer a run for her money in the acting department. That is saying a mouthful because Ms. Spencer is one of the finest actresses on screen today.

The film is not all dark drama. There are many funny scenes and situations that come naturally out of a different way of looking at things, be they black or white. Writer/Director Mike Binder is a former stand-up comic, so he knows how to create funny scenes to lighten the load of a serious drama. Ms. Spencer is adept at parlaying potentially serious scenes into comic masterpieces with the popping of her eyes or her use of African-American body language.  She’s one terrific dramatic/comic actress!

Because of the charm exuded by young Jillian Estell as Eloise, the revitalized acting chops of Kevin Costner, the scene-stealing comic bits by Octavia Spencer, and the professionally adept supporting roles of Andre Holland as the crack-head father, Anthony Mackie as the opposing lawyer, Mpho Koaho (who does an hilarious bit as an egghead tutor), Bill Burr as Costner’s best friend Rick, and blond Gillian Jacobs as Fay, the film is a pleasing entry into the early months of 2015.

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