Who’d have thought Kevin Costner, of all people, would be enjoying such a good decade? He’s brought gravity to iffy blockbusters (Man of Steel and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), enlivened larkish action with self-deprecating wit (3 Days to Kill), supported sturdy dramas (The Company Men) and even kept up his sports-movie streak even as age has forced him from fields to front offices (Draft Day).
Black or White reunites Costner with writer-director Mike Binder, who gave the actor one of his career-best roles in 2005’s The Upside of Anger. Had Binder not already used that title, it might have better suited this story, a dramedy about a pair of widowed grandparents (Costner and Octavia Spencer) duking it out for custody of their 7-year-old biracial granddaughter. (The girl’s white mother died birthing her while her black father has a history of violence, drug abuse and crime.)
For the first two acts, Binder casts an honest look at these characters’ pride and prejudices — unwilling to let any of them off the hook easily or suggest either grandparent doesn’t have the girl’s best interests in mind.
Costner loves her but wrestles with the same, albeit more functional, addiction mentality over which he lashes out at Spencer’s side of the family. Meanwhile, she seems blinded to her son’s screw-ups because of what they say about her otherwise successful life. These two performances are fierce, sympathetic and well-matched, even if Spencer feels too strictly confined to her sassy-stare mode while Costner has room to explore more nuance.
Costner also delivers a courtroom monologue that’s a distant, but worthy, second to JFK but gets bonus points for the word “mollycoddle.” This raw, direct address pulls no punches about knee-jerk accusations of racism on either side of the ethnic line. If only it were the film’s punctuation rather than another transition.
To a more destructive degree than he did in Anger, Binder hinges this film’s third act more on incident and surprise rather than illumination or self-reflection. It goes too far — like 2005’s Crash too far — in going to great lengths to make a simple point and mars an otherwise admirable, tough-minded drama.