Friday, January 30, 2015

Black or White [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (1 1/2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

BET coverage
TheSource coverage

Black or White [2014] (screenplay and directed by Mike Binder) is IMHO yet another film that's actually _better_ than it may seem at first.  However since it is about race, I do believe it would have benefited from clearer African American input, that is, it would have benefited if the writing credits had included an African American voice and perhaps if an African American had served as co-director.

I write this because as good, even excellent, as the film is _in parts_, it's obvious at the end of the day that the film was made by a white people, perhaps by _very well-meaning_ white people, but by white people nonetheless.  Why?   Without revealing how this story ends (and it's not easy to do so here), I'm more or less certain that if the film's "writing team" had included an African American or two it would have ended differently.

YET THERE ARE GOOD / THOUGHT PROVOKING CHALLENGES to both African American and white viewers in this story about two grandparents Elliot Anderson, white (played by Kevin Costner), and Rowena (Weena) Jeffers, black (played by Octavia Spencer) fighting over custody of their 7-8 year old mixed race grand-daughter Eloise Anderson (played by Jillian Estrell).

But then why is the film about TWO GRANDPARENTS, one black one white, fighting over a granddaughter?  Where are THE PARENTS of Eloise?

Well Eloise's mother, white, (Elliot and his wife's daughter), died in childbirth because she was 17 at the time and had run-away / sought shelter from her parents because she knew that the father Reggie Davis (played by André Holland), 23, was black and feared what her parents would do if/when they found out.  Eloise's father, Reggie (Rowena's son), was also out of the picture because as a troubled, fatherless youth (his dad was shot and killed when he was young), he's spent most of Eloise's 7 years of life in jail for stupid/directionless crimes of a troubled young person -- drugs, assault/battery, etc.

Upon hearing of their daughter's death and their grand-daughter Eloise's birth, Elliot and his wife took Eloise in and raised her.  But it was pretty clear fairly early in the film that Elliot's wife did most of the raising.

Things would have continued on this way, with Elliot and his wife raising their mixed race grand-daughter as their own and only a very peripheral presence of Rowena and her large African American family, if not for the sudden death of Elliot's wife due to a car accident at the beginning of the story.   With Elliot's wife's death, Rowena becomes concerned that Eloise not be simply abandoned to her white grandfather who Rowena frankly doubted had the capacity to raise her well.

Why?  Well the families _did_ (come to) know each other over the years.  Elliot it turned out did know, quite well, where in South Central Los Angeles Rowena and her family lived.  And Rowena's family did clearly know him -- as perhaps the "somewhat arrogant white guy" who probably did the driving when he and his wife did _very occasionally_ take their grand-daughter down to Rowena and her family so that she could see them.  And Rowena would have known that Elloit's wife would have been doing most of the raising of Eloise anyway.  Finally, Rowena may have honestly mistrusted men.  After all, Reggie's father (her previous husband/boyfriend), had been killed for unknown reasons earlier, and Reggie himself had (even by her own estimation) not turned out well.  Finally, she would have seen Elliot's non-involvement in Eloise's upbringing prior to his wife's death.

So ... there it is.  Rowena's concern for her grand-daughter is initially dismissed out-of-hand by Elliot.  BUT Rowena and her family were _more_ than just "Reggie" and even more than just "Reggie and Rowena."  She had a large family.  She herself is _hard working_.  We discover that she owns TWO HOUSES OUT THERE IN SOUTH CENTRAL L.A. AND _FIVE_ BUSINESSES (okay some run out of her garage but FIVE LEGITIMATE BUSINESSES).  Beyond this, she had a brother,  Jeremiah (played by Anthony Mackie) WHO WAS A LAWYER.  SO ... Rowena and her family were not _defenseless_ anymore.  And so they took Elliot to court ... over custody of Eloise.

And the rest of the film ensues ...

 The film the proceeds, often painfully, through the objective failings and then misconceptions that both Elliot and Rowena / her family had of each other.

And the film does invite, again painfully, viewers, both black and white, to "grow"

African American viewers are "reminded" of the ENORMOUS DAMAGE THAT THE "REGGIES" IN THEIR MIDST DO TO ALL AFRICAN AMERICANS (But does _anybody_ need to be "reminded" of this? -- And there are plenty of pretty stupid WHITE "Bubba's" out there too...)

More interestingly perhaps, whites are reminded that if they say that they "don't like black people" that they really have to be _far more specific_ because while there was the troubled "Reggie" in this film, there are FOUR OR FIVE COUNTER EXAMPLES of AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO REALLY SHOULD BE EMBRACED and EVEN APPLAUDED BY THE LARGER (NATIONAL / WORLD) COMMUNITY:  There's (1) Rowena herself WITH HER TWO HOUSES and FIVE BUSINESSES.  She's A VERITABLE POSTER CHILD OF HARD-WORK AND ENTREPRENEURISM, (2) there's her brother WHO'S A SOLID, EVEN ERUDITE COURT ROOM LAWYER, (3) There's THE JUDGE, African-American, in the case (played by Paula Newsome) who's a PARAGON OF NO NONSENSE CALM DECORUM AND ORDER and (4) there's an earnest super-hardworking African college student named Duvan Araga (played by Mpho Kaoho) who Elliot hires to tutor Eloise with her school work after his wife dies, (5) Finally, there's the rest of Rowena's LOVELY LARGE FAMILY that's nice, smiling, supportive of each other and others, including Elliot (!), when in need.

So then if one says that one "doesn't like black people" WHICH OF THESE "BLACK PEOPLE" DOESN'T ONE LIKE?  AND THEN HONESTLY WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS (!!)

So this is not a bad film ... just a very painful film and one that honestly probably would have benefited from the African American _input_ that it appears to otherwise advocate for. 

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