A little update, addendum: I do think “Black and White” is one of the best written movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s sure to raise a ruckus, though. Costner’s Elliot inadvertently blurts out the “N” word and it comes back to haunt him in this very level look at race, language and what constitutes family in 2014. There’s an explanation offered later, which covers Elliot. But there will be a lot of discussion about this when “Black and White” hits theaters. The debate should be thoughtful, and hopefully, not incendiary.
Earlier: I don’t think anyone quite understands how Mike Binder’s very effective drama, “Black and White,” screened in East Hampton last night. It wasn’t until after the screening was announced that “Black and White” was named by the Toronto Film Festival as a gala premiere film. But the Lions Gate release was shown last night, and it’s very, very good, especially for stars Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, two past Oscar winners, and our pal Anthony Mackie.
I’ve known Mike since he was a stand up comic in L.A. in the 80s. But he rapidly turned into an excellent filmmaker with a sharp eye. His well wrought original movies include “Reign Over Me” with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, “Man About Town” with Ben Affleck, and “The Upside of Anger” with Costner. He also helmed a terrific but short lived HBO series called “The Mind of the Married Man.”
Now Binder has taken a chapter from his own life and reworked it into a story of a young grandfather (Costner) whose wife dies suddenly. The man then must defend custody of the couple’s 7 year old granddaughter, who is black, and precocious, and who they’ve been taking care of since their daughter died in childbirth. The little girl’s biological father’s family (the grandmother on that side is Octavia Spencer, who’s a knock out in this movie) wants custody. In addition to Spencer, Anthony Mackie is solid as usual as Spencer’s attorney brother.
Costner’s Elliot, who’s well to do, a lawyer himself with means, is hampered by the fact that he’s a functioning alcoholic. He hires a brilliant college kid (“Falling Skies” star Mpho Koahoto is a scene stealer) to be his driver and the girl’s tutor.
Costner is always great when he’s playing a flawed lovable loser who must get his act together. Elliot is sort of a perfect grown up adult version of guys he’s played before. It’s a nice turn on Binder’s part that Elliot isn’t suddenly saddled with the kid–he’s been raising her with his wife, only now the wife is suddenly gone. He dreams about her (Jennifer Ehle, a little young for grandma status I think) as he drinks his way through the custody mess.
What’s so special about “Black and White”? Coincidentally, I wrote about this the other day– this is a movie about race, that confronts the subject realistically but even-handedly. There are no villains. And the movie is a triumph of integrating black and white actors in a very grounded story. Mackie and Spencer are already stars. The film introduces young Jillian Estell as Eloise, the 7 year old, and Andre Holland, who’s terrific as Reggie, her father. Check out a musical cameo by Costner’s 28 year old singer songwriter daughter Lily.
So “Black and White” heads to Toronto under the aegis of LionsGate, which will hopefully get behind it. (Right now, the film is technically with the useless Roadside Attractions.) Binder has produced a very nice piece of work here.