“American Sniper” is expected to blow away Relativity release “Black or White” at the box office this weekend, and the reviews for the Kevin Costner racial drama certainly won’t help change those expectations.
The movie, written and directed by Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”) and co-starring Octavia Spencer as a grandmother battling her granddaughter’s white grandfather (Costner) over custody, has a mere 31 percent approval rating from the 52 critics counted so far on Rotten Tomatoes.
TheWrap‘s Inkoo Kang was among the majority who were not particularly fond of the project, which seems to have missed the momentum that the Michael Brown and Eric Garner protests would have given the film a few months ago. According to Kang, Binder is “unfair” to black characters.
“A rousing and fair debate between the little girl’s white grandfather and black grandmother would have lent the film some badly needed dramatic urgency. But “Black or White” takes a side — that of the beleaguered white man — a narrative choice that becomes all the more frustrating when Elliot’s speeches in court are portrayed as impassioned or wryly clever,” Kang wrote in her review. “Rowena’s attempts to express herself, on the other hand, are presented only as inappropriate outbursts.”
Grantland critic Wesley Morris not only took issue with the portrayal of black characters, but the “preposterous” story he called “tiresome.”
“Whenever the film ought be thinking about class and racial perception and mixed-raced extended families, it gives Costner dreams of the dead wife and makes the crackhead father do the damnedest things instead. The whole movie exists for a speech Costner gives under cross-examination,” Morris wrote. “I do like that, once forced into thinking about race, Costner’s character has actual thoughts. The black characters just believe that the girl should be with them as a matter of philosophy the screenwriting doesn’t allow them to argue.”
USA Today critic Claudia Puig wishes “Black or White” had spent “more time in the gray zone,” but noted excellent performances from the grandparents squabbling over their biracial granddaughter.
“While the family drama features strong performances by Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, things seem over-simplified in this tale … The overall story has a kind of dramatic inertia that undercuts observations about race and class, and the intriguing notion of a child raised in two very different worlds,” Puig wrote. “Give Binder credit for addressing racial divides even if not as profoundly as one would hope.”
Washington Post critic Stephanie Merry also noted “overly simplified characters,” and Boston Globe critic Peter Keough said the melodrama “succumbs to some of the same stereotypes it tries to dispel.”
“The contrast between Elliot’s whitey affluence and the lively chaos of Rowena’s black household is drawn in laughably broad strokes,” Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers wrote in his two-star review noting Binder’s struggle to juggle stereotypes.
Detroit News critic Tom Long was more turned off by the “gaping potholes in logic and storytelling” in a movie he summed up as “utterly sincere and frustrating.”
“Obviously race is a messy, divisive issue for many and any opportunity to examine or discuss the frictions involved should be applauded. But logic just can’t be abandoned in the haste for that discussion,” Long wrote. “‘Black or White’ stumbles even as it tries to move forward.”
The minority of critics who recommended the film to their readers included Los Angeles Times critic Gary Goldstein, who applauded Costner’s performance and bold subject matter.
“True, Binder’s well-intended approach to the movie’s socio-racial schematics may prove divisive; for all its modern smarts, there’s a sporadic ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ vibe at play that can feel dated,” Goldstein wrote. “More important, however, the filmmaker and his on-screen proxies boldly go places our national discourse desperately needs to go, yet rarely does.”