With the racial divide in the U.S. prominently in the news as a result of events in both Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, the timing couldn't be more fitting for the movie Black or White, which touches on the subject of race in a not politically correct, but still thoughtful manner.
In actuality, Black or White isn't a movie about race the way that Selma is. Rather, it is the story of a custody battle, which becomes about race, because Eloise (Jillian Estell), the child in question, is biracial.
For the first seven years of her life, Eloise lived in the safekeeping of her white grandparents in an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles. Then tragedy strikes and her grandmother dies in a car accident, leaving her in the sole care of her grandfather Elliott (Kevin Costner), who drinks a bit too much for paternal grandmother Rowena's taste (played by Olivia Spencer).
As a result, Rowena feels compelled to sue Elliott for custody, understanding that while he has the wherewithal to provide for Eloise financially, she and her family are in a better position to provide for the girl emotionally. As the battle heads toward court, Rowena's attorney brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) insists they need to play the race card in order to win.
"We think we know what this conversation is but white people don't know what it's like to be black," says Costner, who also made the movie a family project by having his daughter Lily sing in the film. "We can empathize, and that's an absolute because that's part of the human condition to be able to empathize with someone else that you don't know."
The movie was inspired by writer/director Mike Binder's own family, in which his wife's sister died, leaving parentless a 7-year-old, biracial son. Binder, his wife Diane, and one of Diane's brothers assumed the major caregiver role, but each weekend, a member of the family would take the boy to stay with the other half of his family in South Central Los Angeles. The disparity between the boy's two lives struck a chord with Binder and he decided to tell the story.
"I've come to realize Black or White is a perfect analogy for where the country's at," Binder says. "It's two families that have a lot of grudges, a lot of things they can't let go of, and they've got to let go of it for the sake of a little girl. I feel that's where we're at as people. If you don't want another 50, 70, 100 years of what bubbles up every year now, we've got to figure out some way to get the next generation and the generation after that closer together."
Of course, for movie-telling purposes the Elliott/Rowena custody story is more complicated than that of the Binder family, where there was agreement. In Black or White both sides are sure they are in the right, and past events have left them with so much anger and fear that it blinds them to a compromise.
Elliott's need to keep custody of Eloise is visceral. She is the last vestige of family for him. He lost his 17-year-old daughter in childbirth, bringing Eloise into the world, and now his wife has been killed in an auto accident. Rowena believes that becoming an actual father to Eloise will get her crackhead son Reggie (Andrew Holland) on the straight and narrow, obscuring the fact that he is in no way ready to assume the responsibility for another human being since he can't even take care of himself.
"I had to come from a place of what was best for the child and I felt that both worlds were necessary in making a complete child, especially a biracial child," Spencer tells Bio of how she committed to the role. "So it was fun playing opposite Kevin and having our little tension. It was really one of the most magical experiences for me because … he's my favorite actor!"
Costner so believed in Black or White that he funded the majority of the $10 million cost of the film personally — not just to get it made but to get it done right.
"The magic of a great screenplay and a story, in this instance, of the times that we're living in made so much sense to me," he says. "When my heart broke into a thousand pieces on the last page, I knew this was a movie I was going to have made."
Black or White opens in theaters on January 30th.