The iconic actor-director’s new custody drama, “Black or White,” offers a fresh, poignant, and sometimes funny treatment of an old social wound.
Actor-director Kevin Costner is an iconic fixture in American cinema. At 60, he still bears a neo-Gary Cooper, or, some would say, James Stewart, quality. With an understated “aw shucks, ma’am” quality you can’t get from a Stella Adler acting class, Costner has appeared in over 45 movies, often, in the 1990s, as the protagonist. His lanky, leathery screen presence, along with the closest thing to a drawl possible for a native Southern Californian, made him a natural for the westerns and sports dramas that have been his métier. The big hits include The Untouchables (1987), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); Field of Dreams (1989), The Bodyguard (1992), and Dances With Wolves (1990), the latter in which he starred, directed, and for which was given dual Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Director.
Not bad for a novice director with material that neither publishers nor Hollywood studios wanted.
Not all of Costner’s creative risks have paid off. He was the prime mover behind two of moviedom’s biggest box office duds, the expensive post-apocalyptic movies Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), reportedly dubbed “Dirtworld” by the crew. Not unlike Babe Ruth, who was known as both the Sultan of Swat and the King of the Strikeouts, in his art Costner prefers to swing for the back fence.
This flair for risk-taking is on bright display with his new movie, Black or White, written and directed by Mike Binder and co-starring Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help). USA Today reports that the script was unloved by reluctant studio financiers, so—believing in the gem of a story on his hands—Costner ponied up half the film’s nine million dollar budget with his own money.
Black or White is not your father’s Kevin Costner movie. The character Elliott Anderson is a doting, if boozy, grandpa whose power attorney hairdo has seen better days. He’s a bit bloated and in a lot of pain. In the opening shot, he’s perched absently on a hospital hallway bench. Having just learned his wife had died in a car wreck, Elliott barely holds back a flood of tears, impaled by a sword of grief he never saw coming.
Throughout the movie, he tries to hold it together in between swigs of a ubiquitous glass of whiskey. Without the stabilizing presence of his wife around, Elliott slowly becomes a paunchy, disheveled shadow of the smart lawyer he once was: he sleeps in his work clothes; wanders absently minus a sock; and has vivid dreams (or are they visitations?) of his late wife (Jennifer Ehle). Now he must raise his biracial granddaughter Eloise (newcomer Julian Estell) alone.
Elliot’s only daughter hooked up with an African American ne’er-do-well named Reggie (Andre Holland), and died giving birth to Eloise. The appearance of the paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer as a feisty mother in denial) who demands custody of the middle-school girl gets the story up on two legs. The stage is set for a courtroom clash. And, at this point, Black or White is vulnerable to the charge of cliché and political correctness. Whether Binder’s script succumbs depends on your perspective. Racists on both sides of the color line will despise this movie.
Many people continue to suffer “racial issue fatigue” after a string of police-related clashes and their controversial court outcomes—all inflamed by a media industry that makes money off conflict, real or imagined. Reginald Hudlin, producer of Django Unchained (2012) and former president of entertainment for BET (Black Entertainment Television) suggested in The Hollywood Reporter that Selma (2014) was shut out of Oscar consideration partly because of this fatigue.
Binder & Costner are banking on the hope that moviegoers are ready for a fresh—at times even funny—treatment of an old social wound. Whether all white, all black, all Native American, or all Upper Bessarabian, the story would work as a tense family drama. The race thing is just spice on a tasty dish.
Sometimes jalapeno-grade spice: the movie dares to invoke the dreaded “n word” in an angry exchange between the hung-over Elliot and the failing-but-trying Reggie that audiences will understand even as they cringe. Above all, Black or White is a human story that refuses to vilify or glorify any of its characters on the basis of skin color. As deprivations go, Original Sin is truly colorblind. In this movie, there’s plenty of dysfunction and vice, and plenty of hope and virtue, to go around.
Thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing, in a recent interview for the new Catholic Answers Focus podcast, Kevin Costner gave some of the story behind the story, and discussed the movie’s underlying transcendent themes of family, ignored grief, and the cost of running from emotional pain. Here is the interview, edited only slightly for length:
Patrick Coffin: In some ways your new movie Black or White would represent a certain risk for an actor in light of the police clashes and racial tension and so on, so I wanted to ask you right off the bat about what won you over to the project and to the role?
Kevin Costner: (chuckles) Well, you know I didn’t think it was, I don’t know, I didn’t think it was courageous. I didn’t think it was risky. I thought it was really honest and I thought, Wow. I’m always comfortable with things that are honest because I don’t have anything to apologize for. And when it’s about my own time, about what I think feels broken out there, I feel even a greater obligation to share it. I would have felt worse about running away from it.
PC: I was reading some of the comments on the trailer channel on Youtube, and people on both ends of the racial divide, if you will, have reacted somewhat viscerally—never having seen the film. But having seen it myself, I can say it has nothing to do with race relations and more to do with family, and forgiveness.
KC: Yeah, that’s just jumping to conclusion. That’s this idea that you can critique a trailer—my God, the shallowness of those who would get drawn into a conversation based on a trailer. And if those people in any way would scare off people from going to this movie, I almost want to say “shame on them” because there’s so much truth in this movie and so many things that get said that people have been unable to articulate for themselves; it’s surprisingly warm, this movie, yet it doesn’t pull punches. So it’s kind of a miracle, actually.
PC: So it’s not the kind of trailer where the best parts are in it.
KC: Absolutely. That’s by design, that’s me saying, “No, we don’t have to lead with our right hand more.” We are going to find our champions. I don’t know where they’ll come from but it will be people who have seen the movie who have open hearts. Those will be our champions. And us trying to win over any other thing—getting off message, of what the movie’s intended to say or softening it or making it more politically correct—is a mistake.
PC: Watching the movie reminded me of watching Kramer vs Kramer [Ed: the 1976 custody drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep] and enjoying your performance as Elliott and it occurred to me that the story is about emotional woundedness and about the effects of addiction on the family. I wondered to myself whether I would watch it if it had nothing to do with race and my answer was yes, I would.
KC: Well, there are some roots there from that particular movie; you can see them, and a completely original take set against this world of racism that we have been dealing with since the formation of this country, and before that, actually. And it’s a cloud that has chased us. It’s one that we’re making some progress on, and movie like this can accelerate that conversation. But there’s just the same weird wickedness of people who would debate a trailer with such vitriol. The energy that must go into that kind of discussion versus the good that people could talk about is just unbelievable to me.
PC: And the title is not Black vs White…
KC: Yeah, it’s almost a rhetorical “Black or white?” Well, who cares? Does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter; in this instance it’s about the welfare of a child, and where is this child going to be loved and nurtured? It turns out, it could be from both households.
PC: One word that occurred to me when I was watching you and Octavia Spencer—especially in the courtroom scenes—is fun. There’s a real chemistry between you as you enter the epic battle.
KC: Yeah, that’s a highlight of the movie, all through the movie. I mean, the sense of humor that runs through Black or White, while it’s still hitting so close to the bone is kind of a really fine dance. It’s an incredible screenplay.
PC: And all the characters are flawed. There’s black heroism and white heroism, and black “flawedness” and weakness, and so on, but all the characters have their compassionate giving side, too.
KC: Absolutely! You find yourself alternatively laughing at it and then being kind of appalled by it.
PC: There’s no explicit reference to faith in the film but there’s a beautiful portrayal of the fact that love and forgiveness are choices that sometimes fly in the face of feelings.
KC: I think that with faith and stuff like that we find a way to move forward, and what you feel like in this movie without it being a kumba ya ending, is the ability for a man to move forward, to accept something that he couldn’t see before. He (Elliot) was backed into a corner; he was dealing with alcohol and people were rushing him and when that happens in life, we dig in. He had barely buried his wife and suddenly he’s getting phone calls asking for shared custody.
There’s a lot in this screenplay people will never discuss—the nuance of it—that we if you think about that he might have come to this conclusion he we see at the end of the movie had he not been rushed but when people get rushed they get defensive and they need to win, an when they need to win they’re willing to pull out all the stops. Then race becomes an issue.
PC: I thought the chemistry between Elliott his late wife—she’s almost the co-star of the film. She seems present, if not seen, in every decision he makes.
KC: Yeah, and boy does he wish she was around. Because she not only was the person who gave love to this child and did all those things but now he was going to have to take over those duties and you can see that it doesn’t matter how hard he was going to try to do it, there are some things a woman can do. And it was really interesting to me.
PC: Your character Elliott Anderson is kind of an anti-Eliot Ness—a big change-up for you. Here’s this paunchy, crabby, boozy grandfather. Looked like you were having fun letting go, in a good way.
KC: Well, I think I had to. I had to put on the weight, let the hair go—let it all go—because when you don’t have your woman you don’t know how to take care of yourself. The things they did to make you sharp are not there. But I was armed with incredible dialogue, some speeches of a lifetime to be honest.
PC: Especially in the courtroom scene and while walking absently with one sock on, one sock off on the sidewalk outside the house.
KC: (laughing) Or getting in the wrong van!
PC: Exactly right. In addition to box office mojo and golden accolades from your peers, what do you hope for this film? What kind of conversation do you hope to jump start?
KC: Well, I hope it’s a massive success in that it’s a movie that wants to be shared. And that it’s a movie that travels through time. You know, we so often measure movies on how they do on opening weekend when it fact the value of a movie is that one you’ll take off the shelf 10 or 20 years from now. Will this movie still be relevant then? That is what I want for this movie. That’s why all the decisions were made to not soften it, to make it as relevant as it could possibly be. And that means all the flaws are shown and all the possibilities are shown. And when we do, I think we have an ability to have a higher understanding when we’re absolutely honest.
PC: That’s the watchword of the film. It raises stereotypes to shoot them down for what they are. Kevin Costner you have amazing staying power as an actor and it’s good to see you continue to be on top. May God bless you richly and all the best with this film.
KC: Well, thank you. That was beautifully said. And certainly, I don’t walk alone.
PC: Amen to that.
This article was first published for Catholic World Report www.catholicworldreport.com