“Black or White,” Mike Binder’s steady, well-intentioned exploration of the racial tensions affecting two branches of a Southern California family, is notable for what it doesn’t try to do. It doesn’t assess America’s racial attitudes based on the headlines of the day or use its story, which revolves around custody of a biracial child, to placate or to inflame.
Buoyed by excellent performances from a cast led by Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, it tells a personal story loosely based on events in Mr. Binder’s own family history. Its characters, both black and white, want to transcend their differences and do the right thing. As I watched this timid but honorable two-hour film, much of which is set in a courtroom, I feared that its hostilities might resolve in feel-good hugs and teary-eyed apologies. They don’t … quite, in a movie that wants to reassure while avoiding sentimentality.
The focal character, Elliott Anderson (Mr. Costner), is a Santa Monica lawyer devastated by the death of his wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle, seen in gauzy flashbacks), from a car accident. They were raising their biracial 7-year-old granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), whose mother died at 17 while giving birth.
The movie makes gentle, if too-cute comic hay out of Elliott’s fumbling efforts to assume Carol’s maternal duties, which include combing out Eloise’s hair and driving her to an elite private school. Eloise’s black father, Reggie Davis (André Holland of “The Knick”), is a drifter and crack addict alienated from his family. This back story is parceled out very slowly. In another too-cute touch, Elliott hires Duvan (Mpho Koaho), a young, extremely polite, multilingual West African math tutor, for Eloise.
In a remarkably vanity-free performance, Mr. Costner, 60, plays Elliott as a potbellied alcoholic wreck with a bad dye job who doesn’t go anywhere without a drink in his hand. Mr. Costner is entirely convincing as an angry drunk who in trying to drown the pain of his loss only fuels his rage and despair.
Elliott is blindsided when Reggie’s mother, Rowena Jeffers (Ms. Spencer), with whom he has a warily cordial relationship, notices his erratic behavior and decides to sue for custody of Eloise. She hires her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a hotheaded lawyer who decides they should portray Elliott as a closet racist prone to using offensive epithets.
Rowena, who operates several small businesses, is the matriarch of a large extended family in the south Los Angeles County city of Compton. The movie jumps between Santa Monica, where Elliott lives in splendor with a full-time housekeeper, and Compton, where Rowena’s extended family spills onto the front porch. Except for the absent Reggie, the Jefferses are a happy, productive clan who play jazz together in Rowena’s big, homey living room.
Ms. Spencer turns the strict, truth-telling Rowena into a mighty force. As in “The Help,” her wide-eyed stare gives her the gravity of an all-seeing sage who doesn’t miss a trick and is not afraid to speak her mind. Although Rowena seldom sees Reggie, she hasn’t completely given up on him. Rowena may be a clichéd Earth Mother, but Ms. Spencer imbues her with a fierce severity.
When Reggie shows up, professing to be drug-free after years of addiction, Rowena and Jeremiah pressure him to join the custody battle. Mr. Holland’s fragile, guilt-stricken Reggie is the antithesis of a stereotypical street thug. Lacking the self-protective bravado of a bad boy, he is afraid to meet Eloise, and terrified of testifying in court.
The Compton shown in the movie isn’t the shoot-’em-up Wild West of gangsta rap lore. There is no sound of gunfire or visible police presence. By making the Jeffers household struggling but middle class, “Black or White” avoids addressing the extremes of poverty that are a root cause of crime and drug addiction. It wants to be a family drama, not a sociopolitical tract, and carefully steers around political potholes.
The movie is so wary of alienating audiences that only at the very end does it explode into violence. That blowup is a contrived, unsatisfying confrontation between Elliott and Reggie that is too calculated to be cathartic.
That’s the point at which “Black or White” surrenders to mawkish Hollywood convention and is much the worse for it. Sad to say, this is a movie that is ultimately afraid of its own shadow.
“Black or White” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Strong language, drug use, drinking and a violent fight scene.