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It's not just 'Black or White'

“Black or White” addresses a number of scrambled issues, some of them funny and some of them poignant. As the title promises, it’s not black or white.

Kevin Costner, who at 60 is as handsome as ever, plays Elliott, the grandfather of a beautiful, and biracial, third-grade girl, Eloise. She is the daughter of his daughter, who died giving birth to her at 17.

His wife has just died in an accident at the start of the movie and he has to break the news to Eloise, who lives with them. They have brought her up since she was born. It is a terrible sight to see him holding Eloise on a bench outside the school, both of them weeping.

Luckily – for the audience, anyway – laughter is right around the corner.

It is emanating from the little girl’s paternal grandmother, Rowena, played by Octavia Spencer. Rowena, a large-and-in-charge type, is head of a cheery house in which dozens of family members live. She worries that Eloise, living alone with Elliott in his grand house, will be lonely and, worse, lose sight of her black heritage. (The old hair issue is played for laughs – Elliott doesn’t know how to brush the little girl’s hair.)

Never mind that her son has hardly seen his daughter over the years, Rowena sues for custody.

On paper, it sounds grim. But “Black or White,” though it strikes serious notes, is for the most part a comedy. I didn’t think I would like it. I did. I thought I would be bored, as I am in many courtroom movies. I wasn’t.

Its sincerity makes it interesting. So does the likability of pretty much all the characters. Rowena might be misguided, but everyone seems good at heart. Even Eloise’s deadbeat dad might be; who knows?

Bad guys are a bore. I once looked into a book by suspense novelist Dean Koontz, and I remember an observation made by his detective hero, that virtue is imaginative, evil repetitive. Early on in “Black or White,” it occurred to me that there did not seem to be any bad guys. I think that’s what keeps the movie moving.

Even the peripheral characters have humor and appeal. Rowena’s lawyer brother, who sets up her custody case, is handsome and funny even as he swallows hard and prepares to play the race card, figuring that’s what it will take to win. You get the idea he would rather not be doing that. Similar things are, of course, happening on Elliott’s side. His law partner, handling his case, tells him that because the judge is a black woman, she will rule against them, and proposes his own dirty-pool strategies.

That’s the courtroom for you, and I imagine that the portrayals of what goes on are pretty close to real life. Two close-ups at this point tell you all you need to know. Rowena’s face and Elliott’s face both show their reluctance to go along with these less-than-admirable tactics. It crosses your mind: These two should date. They are more alike than they know.

The movie will probably be too slow moving for a lot of people. But I like a slow pace, and found a lot to appreciate. Costner and Spencer are both tremendously charming, in their respective unusual ways. The super-nerd whom Elliott finds on Craigslist to tutor Eloise, a black man with a foreign accent and Coke-bottle glasses, steals the show whenever he is on screen. The judge, too, is funny, in an understated way.

It is a flaw in the movie that as it goes on, Eloise turns into almost a minor character. The kid who plays her, Jillian Estell, is adorable without being cloying, smart without being irritating.

I have a few criticisms. It’s hard to justify Rowena’s determination to gain custody of Eloise. Doesn’t Rowena have enough people hanging around, and wouldn’t she feel bad hitting Elliott with this right when he has been suddenly widowed? Some courtroom lines of questioning do not sound as if they would be permitted in real life.

Still you have to admire the movie’s honesty. Everyone in it is flawed, and so it strikes notes of truth. On the witness stand near the end, the impatient Elliott makes a memorable speech. When questioned, he admits that yes, the color of a person’s skin might be the first thing he notices. But after that he notices his interaction with that person. “It’s not my first thought that counts,” he argues. “It’s my second, third and fourth thoughts.”

That speech should be remembered, at least come Oscars time. But it probably won’t be. Much as I liked this movie, I don’t think it will take off.

I think even if people don’t see it as too slow they will dismiss it as fantasy land. Both parties live in lovely houses. Rowena’s lawyer brother operates out of fantastic-looking law offices, and so do Elliott and his law partner.

The weather is idyllic, with blue skies and palm trees. The drama is supposed to take place in Los Angeles, but I think it was filmed in New Orleans.

Finally, a world where people listen to each other and learn?

That’s the part that’s really unbelievable.


"Black or White"

3.5 stars

Starring: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer

Director: Mike Binder

Running time: 120 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for drug use, alcohol abuse, adult situations.

The Lowdown: A man gets into a custody battle for his biracial granddaughter.

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