If you didn’t the chance to see Black or White in theaters over the weekend, don’t worry: You already know the story. It’s the one where the subtlety racist but well-meaning white person is excused from all their bad behavior because of a personal tragedy they are going through, their considerable wealth, or both. Then, through a series of missteps in which they hurt and offend people of color without consequence, they come to realize that just maybe, they do have some work to do. Yet, despite not having done any of the work yet, they are given a free pass.
This particular iteration of the age-old tale stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, the maternal grandfather of a sweet bi-racial (but don’t you dare call her black!) seven year-old, girl named, Eloise. When his wife dies, his functional alcoholism gets worse to the point where he is drinking a coffee mug of whiskey first thing in the morning before taking Eloise to school. He doesn’t know how to brush her hair, he can’t help her with her math homework, and yet, instead of accepting the help of her paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), he wants nothing to do with her or her large extended family. Disturbed by his drinking and his unwillingness to teach Eloise about her black heritage, Rowena files for custody of Eloise. As the two families battle over the third grader, the past gets dredged up, racial tensions rise and the truth behind Eliot’s anger is revealed.
The film, based on a true story from director Mike Bender’s family, is ambitious but flawed. Although the viewer can see Bender’s attempt to create a conversation regarding race and class, he falls short of his goal. Instead the film merely serves as a painful reminder of white privilege and class privilege because the movie ends just as the pretenses are dropped, the truth comes out and the hard work must begin. Not to mention the plethora of black stereotypes and lopsided storytelling that Forbes contributor, Rebecca Theodore, details in her review. Or read Joe Reid’s review in The Wire, where he iterates everything I was ranting about in my head after the movie.
But race and class aside, I have one more bone to pick with the film: the betrayal, or lack thereof, of Rowena’s lesbian daughter, Kristen, across the street. Before heading to the theater, I was excited to hear that there would be a black lesbian character in the film. Indeed the other characters in the film—Elliot, Elliot’s lawyer, Rowena herself—make a point to repeatedly mention that Rowena has a lesbian daughter who lives across the street from her with her partner and kids. As a matter of fact, some of the scenes actually take place in Kristen’s house. Kristen supports her mother’s petition for custody of Eloise. And yet, she has three, maybe four lines throughout the entire two-hour movie. I don’t remember her wife having any.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s always nice to see a queer black female character on screen. Because of the misconception that black people are more homophobic that other races, it’s also nice to see this lesbian character being accepted by her large, extended family. However, I should have known that the film would treat Kristen and her partner as tokens in the first fifteen minutes of the film. After the funeral for Carol, Elliot’s wife, Rowena approaches Elliot to offer her condolences and to ask him what he has planned for Eloise now that Carol has passed. She reminds him of all the family that Eloise has in South Los Angeles. When she mentions her daughter who lives in the house across the street she refers to them as a “little gay family.”
A gay family? Really? Why not a, loving family? Why not a loyal family? Why not just a family? Aunts to help raise Eloise? Cousins to play with? What is the purpose of singling out the family and marking them as different or “other” by qualifying the family as gay? I guess it must seem like such a small slight to worry over, but it comes on top of a pile of other offenses that make the movie, Black or White, an overall disappointment.
Although, Jillian Estell is adorable as Eloise, and I do try to support any project that Octavia Spencer is a part of, my recommendation is to save your money and skip this one.
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