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‘Black or White’ And What We Mean When We Talk About Race

A movie wades into the tortured realities of race in the midst of a national debate

We are in the midst of a national conversation – maybe it’s more like a shouting match – over race.

In the seventh year of our first black president, a year after ’12 Years A Slave’ won Best Picture at the Oscars, the streets of America are filled with angry protesters.

The casualties continue to pile up, the wounds of racial profiling are ripped open.

And now a new movie is igniting debate by wading into the complexities of the tortured realities of race.

“Black or White,” the movie by writer-director Mike Binder, stars Kevin Costner as a wealthy grandfather raising his black granddaughter on his own, challenged for custody by her other grandmother – played by Octavia Spencer – on behalf of the girl’s deadbeat dad (Andre Holland).

The characters are strong and complex – the movie doesn’t make it easy for you.

Grandpa is loving, wealthy and an alcoholic. Grandma is loving, economically sound (though not wealthy) and blind to the crack habits of her son, Eloise’s father. (Eloise’s mother is deceased, no further spoilers.) The little girl (played by Jillian Estell) is adorable, smart as a whip and loves both sides of her family.

It rubbed our own critic the wrong way, who felt the filmmaker was tipping the scales against Eloise’s black family: “The film’s strategy in arguing for Elliot’s custody is to denigrate Rowena’s family, especially her drug-addicted son (and Eloise’s biological father) Reggie, played by Andre Holland, and her brother (Anthony Mackie), a high-powered attorney who isn’t above playing dirty by painting Elliot as a racist in court to win Rowena full custody of Eloise,” wrote Inkoo Kang.

But I felt just the opposite, and I guess that’s just why this issue gets us so exercised. I don’t agree that the film argues clearly for Costner’s custody, though why wouldn’t he be allowed to make that choice? In the film, Costner is a loving grandfather but he also drinks to the point of putting himself and his family at risk. More important, the film takes an unconventional approach: how about an old white guy who loves a little black girl for a change, but is simultaneously angry at her addict father?

Hollywood is usually in the habit of elevating black characters to sainthood while simultaneously relegating them to the background, or else offering them up as stereotyped ghetto thugs. (I refer you to Chris Rock‘s painfully honest essay this week about the realities of being black in Hollywood).

I’m used to seeing Hollywood movies about race as rigid, politically correct tomes. It’s one of the things that still bothers me about “Crash,” which I watched again the other night on cable. Matt Dillon, the white cop in that multi-plot film, is a caricature, vilely molesting the elegant, well-to-do Thandie Newton at a traffic stop.  Ludacris plays a straight-up felon from the ghetto who “embarrasses” Newton’s husband, a black producer (played by Terrence Howard), when he car-jacks him. (Is that really what you say to a carjacker? “You embarrass me?”)

Isn’t life more complicated than that? Aren’t people?

When I saw “Black or White” in Toronto – long before the Ferguson protests over Michael Brown, and now those over the case of Eric Garner in New York – I was mainly struck that Binder was willing to depict a politically incorrect storyline.”Black or White” drives right into the pained breach of racial reality – with characters of every race who have the right intentions and yet do the wrong thing.

So back to Ferguson, and the thousands in the streets. Every decent person is enraged over the abuse of police force and the disproportionate violence aimed at young African-American men.  But none of us can say for certain whether the Michael Brown case is open and shut, and that police officer Darren Wilson should have been charged with murder. Weeks ago a friend at CNN – who is of mixed race – called to say she was torn over the case – how often do police officers deliberately murder people, she asked?

Like this movie, we want to stand for tolerance and fairness. The messiness of real life sometimes makes it hard to know where to stand.

To me the whole movie is worth seeing for a speech Costner gives in the courtroom, which blows away the usual groupthink and asks if it’s possible – is it allowed – for a white person to dislike a black person for reasons other than race? That’s a common sense question that in a post-racial world, if we had one, it would be ok to ask.

So when, I would ask, would we get to that place, and how?

Watch TheWrap’s interview with Kevin Costner from Toronto: