Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer Fight It Out in ‘Black and White’

Toronto 2014: Mike Binder’s racially-charged drama may not win over critics, but it delivered for the film-festival audience

Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer at the Toronto Film Festival
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One trend at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival has been films that are clearly geared toward audiences more than critics or awards voters, and Saturday’s premiere of the Kevin Costner/Octavia Spencer drama “Black and White” clearly belongs in that category alongside Thursday’s “The Judge,” Friday’s “St. Vincent” and Sunday’s “The Equalizer.”

Directed by Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”), the film is the story of a newly widowed lawyer who also happens to be an angry alcoholic (Kevin Costner) struggling to retain custody of the young mixed-race granddaughter he and his recently deceased wife were raising. The child was the product of a relationship kept secret by their daughter, who died in childbirth after delivering a baby fathered by an African-American crack addict and habitual criminal.

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The film is a tug-of-war between Costner and Octavia Spencer, who plays the girl’s paternal grandmother and wants to secure custody for the son she believes has mended his ways. Costner is cranky, Spencer is sassy and they both act up a storm. The audience at Roy Thomson Hall laughed loudly, applauded lustily and went along with even the most implausible turns and the pat (but undeniably satisfying) conclusion.

In fact, Binder delivers a solid piece of socially conscious entertainment, and gives his actors enough grand moments to prompt a few mid-screening rounds of applause. The beats (and the music) may venture into TV-movie territory at times, but there’s no denying that the movie played well to the large TIFF audience.

And while audience sympathy and many of the best lines go to Costner (Spencer settles for the best withering looks, which occasionally steal the show), he’s hardly a paragon of virtue. In fact, nobody in the film is all good and nobody is all bad; “Black and White” may not be as nuanced as you’d like, but it deals with plenty of gray areas.

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Costner’s use of the N-word at a key point in the film is indicative of Binder’s approach to potentially inflammatory material. While the charged expletive can’t help but affect the way we see the character, it also gives him an opportunity to deliver the key speech of the film, a courtroom diatribe about racism that simultaneously cops to prejudice but makes the character more understandable, and even lets him off the hook a little for his choice of words.

You could argue that the scene cuts him too much slack, but you can’t really deny that it works dramatically – and it shows Binder and Costner grappling with real issues that don’t always make it into mainstream studio dramas. (Which may be why no studio signed on, and the film is at Toronto looking for distribution.)

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“When you’re a kid, you can be assured that if you make something, your mother is going to put it up on the refrigerator,” said Costner when he introduced his film to the TIFF audience. “As an adult, when you try to do this for a living, nothing is assured.”

Still, the crowd-pleasing impact of “Black and White” ought to be enough to assure it a long, hard look from prospective buyers.