The Costnerssaince just isn't going well, is it?

For the latest from our boy Kevin Costner, we turn to Black or White, a drama about race relations in America whose suffocating earnestness is almost enough of a liability to distract one from the film's clear-eyed assessment of the tenuous state of racial harmony in a world that is not our own, populated by individuals who very well may not be human. The film's lack of commitment to a reality that overlaps with ours in more than the most incidental details is clear long before it even raises the under-articulated questions promised with its title: right about the time that it introduces us to the bedroom of a person that it claims to be a seven-year-old girlchild, despite the set decorators' obstinate insistence that she is actually a pod person raised on Pier 1 Imports catalogs. It has been a long time since I saw a set in a nominally realistic drama that was so blatantly, offensively a set and not a room that somebody might have chosen to design that way because it reflects their personality. Unless the seven-year-olds these days like to kit out their bedrooms with the kind of blankly inspirational wall-mounted plaques that vacantly demand us to "BELIEVE" in a classy gold font on black.

But I digress. Black or White's inauthentic spaces housing inauthentic people are hilarious, but the real crime of the film is its utter impossibility as a parable of racism. It's a film whose central narrative hook - the white maternal grandfather, Elliot (Costner), and African-American paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), of mixed-race first grader Eloise (Jillian Estell) duel over custody after the sudden death of Elliot's wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle, wasted on a wordless part stretched across few than ten individual shots) - could kickstart Lord knows how many different variations, but writer-director Mike Binder is too certain of the very specific points he wants to arrive at, and he stops at no melodramatic contrivance in order to make certain that the narrative arcs within millimeters of where he has preordained it to go. The result is an increasingly tattered lacework of unnecessary developments and complications that reek of little notecards pinned to a cork board in the writer's office. Elliot has to be an alcoholic, of course, because the film needs to avoid stacking the deck too hard against Rowena's son Reggie (Andrรฉ Holland), Eloise's dad, whom it has already decreed must be a (semi-)recovering crack addict. And he has to be a crack addict, because how else would the film be able to maintain ambiguity about whether Elliot is truly concerned for Eloise's well-being, or if he's just a bigot?

Many, many ways, of course, but some of them would require Black or White to be more thoughtful and reflective and less declamatory and clearly flagged at every level for who is being Reasonable, who is being Stubborn, and who is being Awful, Just Awful. We are told that the best kind of dramatic storytelling sets the characters in motion, and then follows them wherever they will go, building a narrative out of their psychology and behavior. This is surely not what happens in Black or White, which has already decided what kind of decisions all of its characters are going to make, and then constructs them to fit that space. At its best - which isn't much - this approach allows Spencer to give the film's only three-dimensional performance as a woman of stiletto-like insight and dogged self-assurance and willpower, but one who'll tie herself in knots to justify the actions of her absent, dissolute son. At its worst, it leaves us with a vacant hole in the place where Eloise should be, a plot device and lazy symbol from the beginning to the grotesque freeze-frame that the movie elects to end on.

The writing shows itself so openly, and the filmmaking and acting so limply facilitate it (it is overlit and prone to cutting to close-ups as a means of depressingly literal punctuation), and the whole thing is so patently artificial as a result (but not in the good way), that it hardly seems sporting to attack the film's idea of race. Honestly, it hardly seems possible to do so, since even by the rules of its universe-that-is-not-ours, it's hard to say what Black and White actually thinks about racism in 21st Century America. The climax, which finds Elliot given an angry, raspy speech in a courtroom - of course this is one of those "third act courtroom scene" movies, it would just have to be - muddies any of the points the film had previously been making to the point of irrelevance. Black people and white people are different? Aren't? It's all actually about poverty? I don't know what the hell we're meant to take away from any of it, and given how painstakingly the film has been jerry-rigged to make sure that it arrives at exactly that point, it's especially frustrating for the whole thing to collapse into urgent but vague statements along the lines of "Racism! Man, fuck it! And you know what fuck else? Fuck alcoholism, while you're at it". All I can tell is that shaming black drug addicts for being drug addicts but not for being black is, apparently, the film's secret weapon for creating the beatific state where we can all find some kind of way to admit to our own faults and get along.

So the whole thing is confused, shoddily-built, blandly assembled, and acted with a surface-deep emphasis on shouting, snarling, and flaring one's nostrils for effect. Worse films on delicate subjects have been, and will continue to be made, but right now, this is the one we get to deal with. Tuneless and messy, Black and White is not the film America deserves, and it is also not the film America needs. But we got it anyway.

4/10