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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

"If you're lost, you can tell me," says 7-year-old Eloise Anderson.

"Yes, I'm lost," admits her grandfather.

Elliot Anderson is lost. In just about every way possible. More than merely geographically disoriented trying to take Eloise to school, Elliot's adrift in a disorienting sea of grief following the tragic death of his wife, Carol, in a car accident the day before.

Elliot and Carol are the only parents Eloise has ever known, her mother having died giving birth while still a teenager. Elliot, a high-powered Harvard-educated defense attorney, has never forgiven the young black man responsible for, in his mind, taking his daughter from him. And now Elliot's wife has been taken too.

Which is why, whether he's lost or not, he's never going to let anyone take Eloise.

Never mind that he has little idea how to raise a little girl. Who just happens to be biracial. Never mind that helping her with third-grade math is so taxing he hires her a tutor to help. And never mind (most significantly) that his only solace after Carol's passing is a bottle—a bottle that's often empty and rarely far from his right hand.

Undaunted, Elliot remains convinced he can properly raise Eloise, that he's the best person for the task. But her other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers, isn't so certain. Rowena (or Grandma Wee Wee, as Eloise calls her) wants the best for her granddaughter too. And that means making sure the child connects with her black heritage and perhaps even her estranged father, Reggie, who insists he's cleaned up his act.

Elliot doesn't want anything to do with Reggie … and as little to do with Rowena as possible—exuding an antagonistic attitude that reinforces Rowena's suspicion that he just doesn't like black people and doesn't want Eloise anywhere near them. Especially black people like her extended family, which hails from a poor neighborhood in Compton far removed from the posh L.A. environs Eloise currently calls home.

Elliot and Rowena are, in their respectively recalcitrant ways, case studies in stubbornness. So it's no surprise when things devolve into a legal battle for Eloise's custody … a battle that won't conclude before each of the warring parties learns some hard lessons about life and love, addiction and failure, race relations and redemption.


Positive Elements

Black or White paints a complex portrait of a little girl caught in a conflict between two families, both of which have good intentions and significant flaws. As such, there's no real bad guy here—despite some really bad choices on both sides—just a lot of tension in a story that invites us to ponder what a child needs.

Elliot believes Eloise needs continuity with the experience she's had up to this point. He provides her with a house and neighborhood he knows is safer than inner-city Compton. And he vehemently asserts that his home is a more stable environment relationally as well, given the fact that Reggie got his daughter pregnant seven years before and didn't take any responsibility for his choices. And he hasn't even gotten to the benefits of her fantastic school and the tutor he can afford for her.

Rowena, meanwhile, is a fierce matriarch of a large family, working hard (as an entrepreneur and real estate agent) to provide for her charges and keep them out of trouble. She believes that Eloise, who looks more black than white, needs to be with her "own" people and not with a rich and racist (as far as she's concerned) alcoholic white man. She also longs to put Reggie in a position of needing to finally take responsibility for his daughter.

Black or White extensively explores both sides of this messy equation where the obvious and best outcome isn't clear. Along the way, Elliot and Reggie are forced to confront their inner addictive demons, as both realize they've got to be better men if they're going to exert the kind of positive influence on Eloise's life that they really do want to have. Eventually, Elliot is able to articulate some of the deep hurt that's informed his racial perceptions in a way that challenges others in the courtroom to look at their own prejudices as well. A key scene offers Reggie a chance at redemption as well that helps soften Elliot's unforgiving stance toward him.

Spiritual Content

Dreamlike sequences picture Carol coming to comfort her husband as an almost angelic presence after her death. Held in a church, Carol's funeral service features a woman singing a spiritual-sounding song referencing "light" but nothing that's specifically Christian ("Though I'm gone, you don't have to worry/Long as I can see the light"). Several characters wear crosses.

Sexual Content

In Elliot's visions of Carol, she shows up in a nightgown that reveals cleavage. Grieving, he buries his head in her lap. At pool parties, teen girls wear two-piece swimsuits.

We hear that Eloise's mom was only 17 when she had her, and that Reggie was 23. On the witness stand in a court hearing, Elliot says they decided not to press charges for statutory rape (alluding to that criminal act without using those words). Repeated mention is made of one of Rowena's daughters being a lesbian who's married her partner.

Violent Content

Altercations between Elliot and Reggie sometimes end with physical violence. We see them wrestling amid garbage cans on the ground, for instance. Another encounter involves a switchblade, a fall that cuts Elliot's head and then a coffee mug getting smashed over his head for good (bloody) measure. Drunk, Elliot nearly drowns in a pool.

Elliot abruptly yanks a tablet computer out of Eloise's grasp when she refuses to put it down, then roughly yanks her to her feet. Rowena repeatedly slaps her son across the face while reiterating his many failures.

Crude or Profane Language

One use of the f-word. (It's paired with "mother.") At least 15 s-words. We hear "h---" (almost a dozen times), "a--" (four or five times) and two crude slang terms for the male anatomy ("d--k" and "ball sack"). God's name is abused 10 or 12 times, more than half the time paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is misused at least twice.

Elliot calls Reggie a "street n-gger." In court he says he regrets saying it, and he further clarifies that that was the label Reggie applied to himself in texts sent to Elliot's daughter. We end up hearing the n-word a half-dozen times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

For much of the film, Elliot is in denial about his alcohol abuse even as Rowena stridently calls him out on it and a lawyer friend repeatedly tries to get him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Eventually, though, Elliot admits he's got a drinking problem and that it's a liability in his relationship with Eloise. (He begins to try to kick his addiction by … learning French.)

But before that happens, we see him downing the hard stuff morning, noon and night, keeping a well-stocked bar in his home. He lies about his drinking and scolds his housekeeper for trying to hide his favorite booze from him. In many scenes he's visibly inebriated—including moments with Eloise (who scolds him for his drinking).

Elliot meanly labels Reggie a crack addict, an accusation that Reggie denies by saying he's clean. Relapsing, the younger man smokes a crack pipe (twice). We hear that he has multiple drug-related felonies. He smokes cigarettes.

Other Negative Elements


Black or White is a provocative film that digs uncomfortably, intimately and at times profanely into issues of racial tensions within families—so much so that director Mike Binder had a hard time finding a studio willing to produce it.

But Kevin Costner, who plays Elliot Anderson, thought it was important enough of a film to help bankroll it. "Nobody in my career has been as supportive of me as Kevin," Binder said of his leading man at the movie's premiere. "Not only does Kevin turn in an incredible performance, but he made it all happen. He said to me, 'I promised you we were gonna make this movie, and we're gonna make this movie—I'll just pay for it.'" Costner returned the director's praise, saying, "When I read [the script for] Black or White by Mike Binder, I knew something great would happen. I thank Mike for giving me the part of a lifetime. If I never made another movie, I would be glad that this is one that I made."

I get Costner's enthusiasm. As we watch the black and white characters here (especially at first) live down to many of the stereotypes so commonly assigned to each group, the film is self-aware enough to deconstruct what they're doing. That forces viewers to consider why we, too, might judge those who are different from us more harshly without ever considering the influences that have made us who we are.

Costner again: "A lot of people said maybe we shouldn't [make such a racially charged movie]. I thought to myself, 'No, no, I think we should absolutely do that.' Because the truth is that movies have the ability to change you a little bit, and movies have the ability to foster a conversation after the fact, and I think this movie will take its place nicely with those kinds of movies."

Movies can indeed change you. And Black or White can indeed catalyze lively conversations not only about racial dynamics, but also about what it takes to be a good parent. Should it also, then, inspire a healthy debate about the quantity of unhealthy behavior it showcases, from drugs and alcohol to foul language? Absolutely.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Discussion Topics

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Episode Reviews

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Readability Age Range



Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson; Octavia Spencer as Rowena Jeffers; Jillian Estell as Eloise Anderson; Jennifer Ehle as Carol Anderson; Bill Burr as Rick Reynolds; Mpho Koaho as Duvan Araga; Anthony Mackie as Jeremiah Jeffers; André Holland as Reggie Davis; Paula Newsome as Judge Cummins


Mike Binder ( Reign Over MeThe Upside of Anger)


Relativity Media



Record Label



In Theaters

January 30, 2015

On Video

May 5, 2015

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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