September 7, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “Black and White”


BLACK AND WHITE – no current US distributor or release date – Not Even For Free

BLACK AND WHITE was reportedly drawn from events in its writer/director Mike Bender’s own life, which makes it remarkable, on some bizarro level, that every single element of Binder’s script feels false and contrived.  Binder has been a stand-up comic and sitcom writer, and it seems as though he just can’t help himself:  he’s stuffed lousy schtick and fakery into every orifice the movie has, and whatever truth inspired his film in the first place has ended up asphyxiated.

The premise wasn’t unpromising.  Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) is a successful LA attorney who, with his wife, has raised their granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) ever since their daughter died in childbirth.  Eloise is a mixed-race child whose father Reggie (Andre Holland) has barely been in her life, due to his drug addiction and the other resentments the Andersons have against him, and because he’s only intermittently been interested in her existence.  When Elliot’s wife dies at the start of the story, everything falls apart:  Elliot’s drinking turns heavy, and Eloise’s other grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) sues for custody, in part because of her feeling that if Eloise grows up solely with Elliot in his white suburban community, she’ll know nothing about the African-American part of her heritage.

All of that could have been the reasonable basis for an intelligent drama about contemporary attitudes towards race, class and family.  But Bender’s touch is heavy, and he has neither the interest nor apparently the ability to explore any of these topics in a meaningful way.  Although the script attempts to appear even-handed, virtually the entire movie is presented from Elliot’s point of view, and he’s always given the benefit of its doubt.  His drinking problem is presented as something that, at worst, he can clear up in 2 weeks of rehab–and more often it’s played for laughs.  When he uses the word that every American movie about race has to invoke once, Bender stacks the deck by having that use be the most defensible one imaginable.  For her part, Rowena is meant to be a fairly successful businesswoman, with among other things a real estate license, yet she appears to have no problem–despite the many young children she has living with her–with the crackhouse located directly across the street from her home.  Also, she’s meant to be of a distinctly different class from Elliot–but her own brother (Anthony Mackie) is a partner in another LA law firm who seems every bit as prosperous as Elliot.  The lawsuit starts with Rowena suing on her own behalf, but then she and her brother have crackhead Reggie, whose current sobriety is clearly not going to last, be the one to sue for custody, which upends any possibility that audiences could ever root against Elliot.  The ending, when it arrives, is so pat, and so determined to avoid any of the issues that had previously been raised, that it might as well have been turned into a group musical number for the entire cast to sing.

Even worse–much, much worse–are Bender’s flailing and near-constant attempts at comedy relief.  He introduces as Eloise’s tutor (and Elliot’s driver when he’s too drunk to take the wheel) the African immigrant Duvan (Mpho Koaho), who’s like the character a sitcom adds to the cast two seasons after it’s jumped the shark, a collection of gags (he teaches every subject under the sun!  he hands out copies of the papers he’s written on all those subjects to everyone, even the judge!) and solemn homespun wisdom.  Spencer, a wonderful actress, is given dialogue where every line seems to carry with it an inaudible “mmmm hmmm” at the end, as well as an embarrassing running gag where she has pop-eyed stare-offs with the case’s (African-American female) judge.  Compared to the courtroom scenes here, the ones in The Judge are like a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

Costner starred in Bender’s one good movie, The Upside of Anger, which also turned on drinking as a plot point–but that movie didn’t pretend to be “important,” and had solid roles not just for Costner but for Joan Allen.  Costner is a producer of Black and White as well as its star, and whether or not as a result of that, he’s never asked to stretch himself an inch out of his acting comfort zone.  Young Estell is directed to have no facets other than sweetness and cuteness, and the fact that Bender manages to defeat even Octavia Spencer tells you where the other actors end up.

There aren’t a lot of movies worth getting angry about, but Black and White is one of them.  It takes a genuinely worthy theme and willfully turns it into nonsense, and regards simplemindedness as a virtue.  It’s toxic.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."