Kevin Costner’s break from appearing in movies only lasted a couple of years (roughly 2010 until 2013, with a massive TV miniseries in 2012), but in retrospect it seems like longer because of the unexpected barrage of Costner we’ve gotten in the year and a half since Man of Steel came out. Costner’s CV since then looks like an all-of-the-above response to the question of what a formerly huge movie star does when he’s about to hit sixty. The options, all taken: supporting paternal mentor parts in the Superman movie and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit; old-guy Luc Besson action crap thing with 3 Days to Kill; and classic-ish sports-centric Costner in Draft Day.
Having conquered late middle age, Costner has now apparently set his sights on racial healing. This week brings his starring role (quietly Oscar-qualified, to little notice, in 2014) as a lawyer fighting for custody of his black granddaughter in Black or White, and a few weeks later he’ll play a cross-country track coach guiding Latino kids to victory in McFarland, USA, the latest from the inspirational sports division of Disney (in retrospect, how did Costner not star in Million Dollar Arm?). Black or White, at least, aims for more nuance than a white-savior dynamic. Unfortunately, those aims are guided by writer-director Mike Binder. And Mike Binder would like to play devil’s advocate for a minute.
He hasn’t said so directly, not by interjecting into a Facebook comment thread on race or anything, but in writing and directing Black or White he wades into but-what-if territory with almost touchingly stupid sincerity. What if a young black girl was raised by her white grandparents until her grandmother dies, leaving just Elliot (Costner) to raise her? And what if her other grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) decided she wanted custody, but would have a better case if the girl’s shiftless drug addict father (Andre Holland) came back into the picture? What if Elliot and Rowena are constantly at odds, maybe motivated by race but also maybe motivated by a mutual irritation with each other?
And what if Binder, that humanist with seemingly no idea of how humans actually behave, made a movie about race that claims to be about people? He can fake it a little with his leading man: Costner is affecting in assaying Elliot’s grief, and how he takes solace in drinking. He was better—more relaxed, less freighted with dramatic fireworks—in Binder’s similarly bonkers The Upside of Anger, but the actors aren’t the problem here, even when Spencer pulls faces and the movie underuses the always charming Anthony Mackie, playing Spencer’s brother, a successful lawyer who takes the case. Binder, favoring respectable master shots, lets his actors breathe.
But in the process of striving for complexity and (a middle-aged white guy’s version of) fairness, Binder also makes every character detail feel like a self-conscious construction. He doesn’t avoid straw-man characters so much as tie together a whole straw ensemble. So to balance out the deadbeat dad, the smart, put-together lawyer chews him out for conforming to stereotypes; to balance out the lawyer’s slick manipulations, he’s cowed by Spencer; to balance out Spencer’s cartoonishness, she’s made a successful owner of multiple businesses. To excuse Costner’s latent and supposedly story-motivated biases, he’s given a nerdy black tutor/attaché (Mpho Koaho, charming in a passive role) and some white lawyers who seem more unrepentant in their racism. The judge is a black woman, but she has no patience for Spencer’s grandstanding! Costner uses a slur but its origin will surprise you! And so on, for two hours.
Eventually, Black or White turns into an elaborate, exhausting shell game, which fails to distract from one of its nuttiest core assumptions: that a young black man with a criminal past has unfair advantages when going to court against an older white guy. Eloise, the little girl in question, fades from the movie as it spends more and more time with courtroom grandstanding (most of her bonding with both the black and white sides of her family seems to happen just offscreen). Costner’s late-middle-age emoting has its limits when what he’s after has little more depth than a MacGuffin.