I pride myself on not spoiling the movies I review. However, this is not a review. This is an examination of the 2015 film Black or White. In order to explain my reasoning, the outcome of the film must be discussed.
After his wife passes away Elliot (Kevin Costner), who is white, is left alone to care for the couple’s bi-racial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). His daughter died eight years ago while giving birth to Eloise. Perhaps not surprisingly when given those facts, Elliot takes to drinking heavily. In the midst of all this, Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) sues for custody of the girl believing she would be better off with that side of the family. A courtroom drama wrapped around the pulling to and fro of a child ensues.
Black or White is a movie in which what’s best for Eloise is debated and decided as each side clearly has the child’s best interest at heart. In a vacuum, it’s a harmless film in which a little girl is going to wind up in a loving home no matter where she lands. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists well over a century deep in an industry with a well-documented history of portraying people of color through the use of various negative stereotypes. Regardless of how many variations there are, they only serve two purposes. The first is to denigrate and/or subjugate people of color. The second is to sanctify whiteness. Of course, it could be argued that those are really just one purpose. This is a film that carries on those traditions as if it’s doing nothing wrong.
The problems with Black or White begin before the movie even starts, with the title. It immediately lets the viewer know that there is a choice to be made. As human beings we are conditioned to choose the better option when given the opportunity and expect others to do the same. Before we even press play, a seed has been planted in our brains. In the film we are about to watch, the choice to be made is between black and white. The characters within are automatically elevated from normal human beings to representatives of their entire race. Whichever is chosen must clearly be superior.
Very early in the movie it’s apparent which way this thing is going to go. Elliot is a wealthy man living in a spacious home with a pool. Money is truly no object as he can buy anything Eloise wants. On the other hand, Rowena lives in a nice enough house, but it’s crowded with people and she runs her business from the garage. It looks like no one born into the family ever leaves there, certainly none of the females. It’s (almost) an all-girls house. From what we know of them, they’re all nice, well-adjusted people, but the fact is they’re packed in like sardines under Rowena’s iron thumb. She’s an all-powerful matriarch with no male equal in her life. It’s portrayed pleasantly enough, but the sheer size of the population, the lack of a positive male influence, and the fact there’s a crack house across the street clearly mark Elliot’s place as much more preferable. In both a literal and figurative sense, the grass is greener on his side.
The lack of a positive male on Rowena’s side of the ledger is most troubling. Rowena’s nephew Jeremiah played by Anthony Mackie, has the appearance of one without actually being one. He’s a big shot lawyer and handles Rowena’s case. Even in that capacity, armed with all the knowledge he had to attain to achieve his current position in life, he’s clearly at his aunt’s mercy. More off-putting is how much he insists on doing what the movie itself does. He’s hell bent on making the case about race. His aim is merely to bring down the white man. This plays into two stereotypes. Since it is practically the first thing out of his mouth, he’s painted as an angry black man looking for any reason the play the race card. Second, it positions an educated and successful black man as a threat to the establishment. Slyly, Elliot’s team of lawyers includes a black woman, but no black men. Still, Jeremiah is about a thousand times more palatable than the other black male characters.
The more blatant stereotype is the complete mess that is Reggie (Andre Holland), Eloise’s father. For starters, he is a crack addict. Worse, he clearly wants nothing to do with his own daughter. Every word he speaks is rather despicable. It’s either an excuse, an admission of his own crappiness, or a request for a handout that he will undoubtedly misuse. He is both duplicitous and spineless. To emphasize his faults, he even makes sure to justify Elliot saying he acts like “a worthless street nigger” because of how sorry a person he is. The only thing missing from his pitiful explanation is that it didn’t begin with “I is.” Oh yeah, if all that wasn’t bad enough, we find out Reggie is illiterate, too. He is drawn purely as a contemptible black man shirking his responsibility and pushing his kid into the system. Sure, there are black men like this in the real world. However, in a film where each character is set up as an allegorical figure, and with three black male characters, Reggie loses individuality and becomes a full third of the black men in America. That number might actually be closer to half when you consider that the third black man is not American.
Ah yes, the third black man. He is an African named Duvan (Mpho Koaho). He is hired by Elliot to be Eloise’s math tutor. It’s rather innocuous sounding, but this is hardly where his duties stop. He also becomes Elliot’s man-servant driver and is pretty constant presence in Elliot’s home. He is pleasant, happily agrees with his boss and is visibly uncomfortable in the presence of other black people. To some, he just seems to be a happy-go-lucky and all around nice guy. However, Duvan is a mix of two troubling stereotypes, the Magical Negro and the Contented Slave. The Magical Negro is a character we’ve seen countless times before and will probably continue to see for the foreseeable future. In case you don’t know, The Magical Negro is a black character, usually a black male, who has some special ability and exists solely to help the white protagonist save the day or learn an important lesson. Often, this person will sacrifice himself in order for this to happen. Duvan’s special ability is that he speaks about half a dozen languages. The implication is that this will rescue Elliot from alcoholism so he can truly be the best Elliot he could be. No, really. More on this, later. Duvan’s sacrifice comes on the witness stand. He belies his undying loyalty by reluctantly being honest when asked about how often he’s seen Elliot drunk. So unwilling is he to do this, he has to be given the okay by Elliot before he does.
Duvan’s reluctant admission ties right in with the other stereotype I mentioned, the Contented Slave. In its simplest form, this is a slave who is happy being just that. He/she often sings the praises of their white master regardless of whatever atrocities he’s committed. They go about their duties in a jovial manner and can see no good reason to be anything other than a slave. When other slaves plan to run away or revolt, the Contented Slave wishes to do no such thing and makes sure to express this to them. Usually, this slave lived and worked in the master’s house, hence, another term for such a character – a House Negro. A recent example of this type of character is Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Django Unchained. Duvan might not be a slave, but the attitudes, actions, and purpose are all the same. He is there to demonstrate that life is good under white rule.
In the case of this movie, white male is fiercely represented by Elliot, and race is presented as a not-so-subtle basis on which to decide this custody case. I’ve already mentioned his wealth and the difference in living quarters. He’s got his Magical Negro and Contented Slave rolled into one person and just for good measure, his maid a Latina, yet another stereotype. Still, Elliot is not perfect. However, his flaw is handled far differently than Reggie’s even though they are essentially the same: addiction. Obviously, what they’re addicted to is different, but the core sickness is the same. Reggie is shown as someone who can’t be helped. No matter how many well-intended deeds come his way, including financial handouts from Elliot, Reggie finds a way to screw it up. He even back stabs Elliot in the process. His problem is clearly keeping him out of his daughter’s life.
On the other hand, Elliot’s addiction is presented as something that can and will be easily overcome whenever he decides he’s ready. It never clouds his judgment or affects his relationship with his granddaughter in a negative manner. When the time comes to deal with it, he doesn’t seek professional help of any type. He simply tells Duvan to teach him French. No, really. Aside from the racist implications of giving him absolute control over his addiction while giving Reggie none, it is a slap in the face to anyone of any race who has ever struggled with alcoholism. Their plight and journey is ridiculed as unnecessarily arduous. Why go to rehab when picking up a hobby will do? His big moment comes when he takes the stand. This is when he gets to justify racial epithets, discount his own problems, proclaim his love for his granddaughter and shout down all the (black) naysayers. It’s presented as some sort of truth serum moment, sobering the hearts and minds of all the black folds who dared to bring this suit against him. All except the militant Jeremiah, that is.
Before we get that far, there is another potential trip-up for Elliot trying to win custody of Eloise is that without his wife or daughter alive, there will be no adult female presence in his granddaughter’s life. When we get to the end we come to understand that he has Rowena for that. She can be counted on whenever Eloise needs her hair done. As a sign of his benevolence, Elliot will let the girl stay with Rowena for a short while. Of course, this only happens after Rowena has come to the realization that Elliot’s house in the rightful place for their granddaughter. By the way, Rowena is herself a variation on the Mammy stereotype. I’m being a bit lazy here, but I’m going to defer to the characteristics as laid out by Wikipedia:
The mammy was usually portrayed as an older woman, overweight, and dark skinned. She was an idealized figure of a caregiver: amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening, obedient, and submissive. The mammy figure demonstrated deference to White authority. On occasion, the mammy was also depicted as a sassy woman.
I’d say that sums up Rowena pretty good. Though she starts of sassy, threatening and domineering, she does an about face by the end of the film. When the credit rolls, she is non-threatening, obedient, and submissive.
Two other adult black women also have interesting roles. Most prominent is the judge whose primary duty appears to be keeping Rowena in line. She repeatedly warns Rowena about blurting out in court until, of course, Rowena is suddenly blurting out on Elliot’s behalf. The other is a barely seen member of Elliot’s law team. She is an insignificant character, for sure, with only a few lines. However, her constantly smiling face, combined with that of Duvan, the other black person who works for Elliot, provides an interesting contrast to the perpetual scowls and/or defeated looks worn by Rowena, Reggie, and Jeremiah for much of the film.
Eloise herself is not exempt from the shenanigans. Thankfully, she avoids being a Tragic Mulatto. That particular trope involves a bi-racial character who does not and cannot fit in and be accepted by either blacks or whites because of their ethnic duality. Eloise is accepted on both sides. However, she herself makes it perfectly clear that she wants no part of living with Rowena. Why would she when life with Elliot is so good? And since the subject of slavery has been raised, it should be no shock that even the girl’s name is a call back to that most unfortunate period in history. In case you didn’t know, the vast majority of African-Americans got our last names directly from the owner of the plantations on which our ancestors were born. For instance, to take it back to Django Unchained, since the owner of “Candie Land” is Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, any slaves born on his plantation would have Candie for a last name. Here, it’s inverted so that her first name, Eloise, is very similar to Elliot. It may or may not be an intentional reference to slavery, but it is certainly another not-so-subtle hint about where she belongs.
Whether anything in Black or White was done purposely is something we’ll likely never know for sure. I’m positive the people at the helm, star Kevin Costner and writer/director Mike Binder, would never say they set out to do anything heinous. I just know how it comes across. It comes across like a never-ending barrage of every negative stereotype ever deployed in the depiction of African-Americans in cinematic history while yet another white protagonist saves these poor, down-trodden souls from themselves. It is offensive, no matter how well-meaning anyone claims it to be. Truthfully, it’s the type of film that I’d expect to be shot down before getting to the filming stage because it’s so badly dated and insensitive. Evidently, it’s not.