The first sign of trouble is the music, a maudlin tinkle that never lets up, brass and keys filling every available pocket of sonic space. It’s the work of Terence Blanchard, the famous jazz trumpeter and film composer, best known in cinema circles for his collaborations with Spike Lee. Blanchard’s scores can be vibrant and beautiful, but they can also be oppressive, drowning out small moments with a big racket. In Mike Binder’s Black Or White, every moment is big, even the small ones, and Blanchard seems to have been brought in to assure that only the severely hard of hearing will miss how damn emotional this all is. Maybe, on the other hand, his involvement is meant to create some power by association: A race drama fashioned out of a family feud, Black Or White at least sounds like a Spike Lee joint, though it rarely plays like one.
Binder, who once made lowbrow comedies but now specializes in middlebrow dramedies, is in several leagues over his head with this story of a custody battle between a white grandfather and a black grandmother. Reunited with the writer and director of his midlife-crisis vehicle The Upside Of Anger, Kevin Costner brings a certain charming saltiness to the role of Elliot, a high-functioning drunk whose cushy suburban life is turned upside down by the death of his wife (Jennifer Ehle, way too good of an actress to be relegated to wordless flashbacks). Elliot’s daughter died years ago while giving birth to the adorable Eloise (Jillian Estell), and while he’s provided his granddaughter a loving, charmed upbringing, he’s also limited her interactions with the other side of the family—and now Grandma Rowena (a typically strong Octavia Spencer) wants a shot at custody. Is Elliot the racist she thinks he is or is he just trying to protect Eloise from her biological father, Reggie (André Holland), a supposedly recovering crack addict whom Elliot blames for the death of his daughter?
Per its title, Black Or White feigns dramatic balance, but its perspective is obviously aligned with only one of these warring relatives: While Elliot’s upper-middle-class world feels specific, the other characters reside in a stereotypically sketched South Central—a place where jobless adults spend all day shooting the shit on the porch, while Rowena operates six businesses out of her garage. Binder thinks he’s playing fair by drawing parallels between Reggie’s weakness for the pipe and Elliot’s drinking problem, but the latter is often played for laughs, while the former is treated like a source of suspense, the factor that will determine whether Elliot is a bigoted jackass or just smart to distrust Reggie. It’s telling that the voice of reason on the other side, Rowena’s brother and lawyer (played by Anthony Mackie), seems equally distrustful of his nephew.
When not piling on the shrill melodrama, like a violent showdown that could have been pulled straight out of Crash, Binder is leaning hard on lame comic relief: There’s a nerdy African tutor (Mpho Koaho) who loves to write essays on every conceivable subject, and the inevitable courtroom finale stalls for some sassy fireworks between Rowena and the judge. Everything builds inexorably to a mission-statement monologue, a big speech on race that feels like the impetus of the entire project. Guess who delivers it. Black Or White is never less than sincere in its tackling of a tough topic, but not everyone is equipped to wade into those waters. Tempting though it might be to celebrate any earnest, good-faith attempt to talk about race in America, it’s clear that the creator of Mind Of The Married Man was not the right one to do the talking.