BLACK OR WHITE, starring Kevin Costner

black or white

I saw this movie a couple of weeks ago and thought it was forgettable and dull, and that, if you wanted to watch a movie with the exact same plot only 1000 times better, you should watch Losing Isaiah, a heartbreaking film about poverty, addiction, and loss.

But things nag at me, and it has inevitably happened that I have to sit here and rant a little about this movie, which P.S. is not Mr. Costner’s worst. (We hope the upcoming McFarland will be his best, as it looks aspirational and even triumphant in the trailers)

Synopsis: little bi-racial girl who identifies as black lives with her white grandparents because her mother is dead and her black father never manned-up and took her. He’s been in jail, see? The white grandmother dies, so now black grandma wants custody, so everyone lawyers-up and here we go.

I have serious problems with this movie:

First, this movie is filled to the brim with stereotypes. The rich white lawyer and the poor black ex-con, for starters. The idea that men can’t raise children as well as women can. The idea that a large family is better than a small family, that a drug addiction is worse than an alcohol addiction, that black men will inevitably leave, but white men will be responsible, and that, in the end, we’ll all work together. Of course the black man will still be gone, because black men are losers like that.

Second, the courtroom scene was chock-full of stupid. For example, there is no guardian ad litem advocating for the little girl, Eloise. There are no expert-witness child psychologists. Eloise herself is questioned by no one. Easy enough to ask her, “Eloise, where would you like to live?” She’s not four. She’s eight or nine years old, and her opinion would be sought, if not necessarily followed. Black Grandma (lovingly played by the wonderful Octavia Spencer) shouts from the petitioner’s table repeatedly, which again is a caricature of loud black women who get all up in your face.

Also wrong in the courtroom scene is that White Grandpa is accused of calling Eloise’s father a racially-charged name. He admits that he did use the name, when in fact he did not.

Third, I don’t know about you, but if my husband was killed in a car accident, the very next day I would not be up to pretending it hadn’t happened so I could take my grandchild to school without letting on that grandpa was dead. Mr. Anderson (Mr. Costner) does just this. Weirdly, however, as soon as school is over, he tells her. He never expresses any believable level of loss over the death of his wife. He drinks a lot, and maybe the drinking makes up for expressing grief? I don’t drink, but I have been an emotional eater, and I’d like to tell you here that the emotional eating after catastrophic loss has never impeded my need or ability to sob my heart out.

Fourth, there is the bizarre matter of the swimming pool incident. Mr. Anderson is minding his own business in his own backyard-with-giant-pool. An intruder comes and beans him in the head with a flower pot or something (I forget). Blood is pouring out of his head, and then the intruder pushes him (or he falls, I forget) into the pool. Wait for it–we see a line of dark blood clotted to his forehead. Now, people, come on. Unless he has some anti-hemophiliac disease, blood doesn’t clot and stick instantaneously. When you have a fresh bleeder and you fall into the pool, the fresh red blood diffuses in the water, and the viewer would see a clean cut with maybe a lot of new blood flowing out. I know this is gross, but if you are making a movie, you should attend to details like this. (“Make-up! Get a stick-on blood thingy over here for Mr. Costner’s pool stand-in! Make sure it’s black, so it shows up under water.”) I can’t even about the quick-clotting blood.

Of course, in the end everyone is friends, but Daddy has to go find himself again for who knows how long. Because black men.

Am I clear: stupid movie full of stereotypes, and that’s not helpful to the conversation in America today.

May I recommend for your viewing once again Losing Isaiah? In this brilliant movie, Halle Berry plays a crack-addict mother who (rightly) loses her newborn son into the social services system. Her poverty and addiction are powerfully portrayed as is her recovery. But wait, the white family who adopts Isaiah is also full of dysfunction on a marriage-shattering level. Because things aren’t black or white–life is messy and people screw up, and then (this may be worse), they recover. They move on, and then they want what was theirs, and they want it now. Sometimes compromise is in order.

As an adoptive mother, I cannot imagine the agonies of having to give back a child. Can. Not. Imagine. It. This is portrayed far better in Isaiah than it is in Black or White, which, for all it’s trumpeting of “This is not about black or white” really is.