When a film features two highly-acclaimed Award winners, you can be assured that it will be time well spent to view it. This is the case for “Black or White” which stars Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer as two feuding grandparents of their bi-racial granddaughter.
Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) has had his share of hardships, having had the experience of losing both his daughter and his wife, leaving him to raise his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) by himself. His daughter, at age 17, died in childbirth, never revealing to her parents that she was pregnant and unmarried, and that the father of her child was black. Elliott and his wife Carol took Eloise in and provided her with everything she could ever want, including a private school education.
Kevin Costner - Wikimedia
The opening of the film shows Elliot in a hospital corridor, grieving over the fact that he has just been told that Carol did not live following the auto accident that threatened her survival.
At Carol’s funeral, we are introduced to Eloise’s other family, the matriarch of which is grandmother Rowena “Wee Wee” Jeffers (Octavia Spencer). Eloise’s father Reggie (Andre Holland) did not show up; in fact, Eloise has never met him. As the story progresses, we learn that Reggie is, of course, a dead-beat dad, a drug-addict with a rap sheet, who tries to extract money from Elliot with the promise to go away.
Elliot has his own problems, including the obvious one that he drinks too much. When Grandma Wee Wee informs him that she plans to seek custody of Eloise, Elliot’s drinking problem comes to the fore as a major hindrance for him.
Elliot assures Wee Wee that she and her family are always welcome at his home to visit Eloise, and offers to host them at a swim party whenever they choose. The family (about 20 relatives) show up the next day, and Elliot makes good on his promise. Even Reggie shows up late, but spends most of the time sleeping in a chair. He finally gets up the nerve to confront his daughter to give her a big hug, which she returns.
Elliot’s fury at Reggie increases as he does not show up for a dinner that Elliot has prepared so that he and Eloise can get to know each other better. Meanwhile, Wee Wee has set in motion a custody battle, in which she changes custody from herself to her son Reggie, who admits to her that he is not ready to take on the rearing of his daughter. Wee Wee believes sincerely that Eloise belongs with their family which consists of several children and aunts and uncles.
Octavia Spencer - Wikimedia
A court-appointed counselor meets with Eloise several times, during which Eloise’s behavior seems to deteriorate. She loses interest in her school work, and seeks a closer relationship with her father. Elliot senses that the counselor is putting these ideas in Eloise’s mind.
Elliot has hired a tutor for Eloise, a young black man named Duvan, who is highly qualified and speaks six languages. Elliot has also convinced Duvan to be his driver from time to time since Elliot’s drinking problem prevents him from taking the wheel at certain times. Duvan is a great asset to Elliot’s case, although his honesty prevents him from protecting Elliot when Duvan is questioned in the court room.
Wee Wee’s brother Jeremiah, a prominent lawyer, has arranged for a black female judge to hear the custody case. Wee Wee interrupts the hearing several times with her own explanation of events, and is warned by the judge that she will be taken away in handcuffs if she opens her mouth again.
When Elliot is put on the stand, Jeremiah asks him bluntly if he is prejudiced against blacks. Jeremiah offers the fact that Reggie has stated that Elliot called him a “Street Nigger.” Elliot admitted to using the term but said that it came forward in his mind because, after the death of his daughter, Elliot found several texts on her phone sent to her by Reggie who signed off as “Your Street Nigger.” Although this racist exchange might seem inappropriate in a film rated as PG-13, it was necessary to explain the rage that existed between the two men.
Elliot went on to explain his own feelings in the matter, which was a brilliant episode in the film. He said that, of course, the first impression a person makes on another would be his color. Then, secondary traits come to the fore so that color is not the overriding factor that decides the character of a person. He referred to Reggie’s neglect of his daughter, his drug habit, his criminal record, and his lack of regular employment which all added up to describe a person who was not a responsible human being; his color had nothing to do with it. Wee Wee was forced to interrupt the proceedings once again to state that she, instead of Reggie, would seek custody of Eloise.
Judge's Gavel - MorgueFile
Octavia Spenser was brilliant in her role. In chastising her son, she revealed the mother instincts that all women possess, of wanting children they can be proud of, and taking steps to insure that those children will live up to a mother’s expectations. The look on her face and her determination spoke volumes, apart from the lecture that she gave him.
Nine-year-old Jillian Estell, who played Eloise, stole every scene in which she appeared. She has talent far beyond her years. I hope we see more of her.
The judge gave her decision which will not be revealed here. You will want to see this film for that reason and for many others. It will remain in your consciousness for a long time and will probably mold your outlook on racial relationships that are prevalent today.