Race relations are known as the “third rail” in American discussions these days, the hottest of topics that people are still loathe to discuss in detail for fear that the conversation — and perhaps the relationship that goes along with it — could explode at any moment. And with protests over police treatment of African-Americans taking place nationwide in the wake of incidents like those in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, it might seem that there’s no safe way for people to take these conversations down to a personal level at all.
That’s why the new movie “Black or White” might prove to be an invaluable addition to the national discourse. Starring Kevin Costner as Elliott, the white Catholic grandfather of a biracial girl, and Octavia Spencer as Rowena, the girl’s black grandmother, the movie finds a uniquely humane touch to the myriad issues involved while also daring to find a sharp mix of drama and laughter along the way.
Each grandparent is battling for sole custody of their granddaughter, Eloise. The situation arises because Elliott’s 17-year-old daughter died in childbirth. Her child was the product of a secret relationship with Rowena’s 23-year-old son. Because of the secret nature of their relationship, Rowena and her family didn’t warn Elliott and his wife when their daughter abruptly went into childbirth. Not knowing that she had a risky genetic condition that needed to be addressed, Rowena’s family watched helplessly as the girl died before Elliott and his wife could get there.
The fact that he was left unaware during those tragic moments, combined with the fact Reggie was a drug-abusing street thug who fled after his daughter’s death, inspires years of resentment in Elliott, who assumed full custody of Eloise with his wife. But with his wife suddenly killed in a car accident and Reggie now claiming to be sober and ready for parenthood, an intense battle ensues over which family — and which racial environment — is better for the child.
“Early in my marriage, my wife’s sister died tragically at 32 years old. She had this wonderful 7 year old son, a biracial child, and his father’s mother, grandmother and aunt and cousins were down in South Central,” says Mike Binder, who wrote and directed “Black Or White.” “My wife and brothers all came together and raised Sean, so he had two families and two worlds: Santa Monica and South Central.
“I always thought it was a good analogy somewhere, and fertile ground to put a story into,” Binder continues. “Then I decided to create something completely different so it wasn’t just Sean’s story. I thought it was a great character for Kevin. I write a lot of things with him in mind because I know he takes my calls.”
Indeed, Costner has had a strong friendship with Binder going back to their 2005 film collaboration, “The Upside of Anger.” That film contains some of the best moments of the Oscar-winning actor’s career, and prompted Costner to take the part when Binder approached him about “Black Or White” and said that film studios were afraid to touch it due to its hot topic.
“The only pushback was in the sense nobody wanted to finance it,” says Binder. “I think they were afraid it wouldn’t appeal to a black, white, or mixed audience, but I sensed Kevin could nail it the way Spencer Tracy would. He finally stops talking and gets real about what’s going on. You shouldn’t be applauding this character’s lines, but the performance is so strong.”
Ultimately, Costner believed in the movie so much that he paid for it himself and then sold it to distributor Relativity Pictures. Between this movie and Costner’s next, “MacFarland USA” (Feb. 20) — in which he plays a coach for a team of Latino students — it’s clear that the star has the issue of race on his mind. So, what does Binder himself have to say about his movie’s message?
“That’s a good question. I think that it’s an analogy, two families with a lot of acrimony and bitterness and justifiable anger towards each other have to let it go for the sake of the little girl,” says Binder. “It’s an analogy to the country, especially with the white people and the black people in this country. We’ve got to figure it out as a nation. President Obama said his kids do it better than him, and my wife Diane and I see that with our kids.
“But that’s not all that way,” Binder continues. “Some guys are out there raising their kids for another generation of hating and distrusting people, hurtful things. If we don’t want this to go another 50 to 75 years, we better teach the next generation to judge people by who they are not what they are. That’s the main message of the movie.”
With the movie focusing on a Catholic man in Costner’s Elliott and a more generally Christian family in Spencer’s Rowena — factors that are mentioned in passing rather than hammered home — Binder, who is Jewish, feels that it’s in our nation’s churches and synagogues that the messages of redemption and reconciliation can best be shared.
“I think from the pulpit they’ve got to reach out and kids need to learn from early on to judge people by how they behave, not the color of their skin,” says Binder. “Churches and synagogues are a great place to learn.”