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Film / Black or White

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A 2014 drama film written and directed by Mike Binder, starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is the grandfather of a bi-racial little girl, Eloise (Jillian Estell). Eloise is the daughter of Elliot's own teenage daughter, who died in childbirth, and an older black man and drug addict named Reggie (Andre Holland). Elliot drinks to numb the pain of having lost both his daughter and his wife, who's just died in a car crash at the beginning of the movie. Despite this, he makes a very comfortable living, is not physically or emotionally abusive to Eloise, lives in a nice house in a safe neighborhood, and loves Eloise with all his heart.

The plot kicks off when Eloise's paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer), files for shared custody of Eloise after the death of Elliot's wife. She then challenges Elliot for full custody because she believes him to be racist. The rest of the movie is both sides trying to come to terms with the situation and, ultimately, what situation would truly be best for Eloise in the midst of the racially-charged custody battle.

Not to be confused with the yaoi manga, Black or White.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Amoral Attorney: Rowena's lawyer/brother Jeremiah. While he's far from the standard example of this trope, and isn't necessarily a bad person, he's still deliberately trying to force a racially-charged perspective in order to make Elliot look bad so Rowena can win the case.
  • Black and Nerdy: Duvan the (poly)math tutor. In addition to being good at math, at the young age of 19, Duvan is fluent in over a half dozen languages, plays piano, and has an obsession with writing research papers on education-related topics.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Part of what drives the conflict is that both Elliot and Rowena are justified in their perspectives. Elliot is right that Reggie is a worthless deadbeat who's unfit to raise children. Rowena however is justified that Elliot has a drinking problem and that his own abilities to be a parent are impaired as a result.
  • Death by Childbirth: This is part of what drives the plot, informing both Elliot's hostility towards Reggie and his drinking problem.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: For all that Jeramiah is an Amoral Attorney, he has NO tolerance for Reggie's irresponsibility as a person and a father.
  • Fatal Flaw: Rowena's hardly a bad person, and it's made clear that she does genuinely love Eloise and wants what's best for her. Unfortunately, she can't accept just how much of an irresponsible deadbeat Reggie is, as well as how unfit he is to be a father.
  • Heel Realization: Rowena has one that spans the final two hearings, after she witnesses in no uncertain terms exactly how much damage her son's actions have caused Elliot and his family. She realizes that she can't keep defending Reggie and that Elliot is not the racist that she assumed him to be (and that her lawyer brother kept convincing her to perpetuate), prompting her to withdraw the custody bid on the grounds that he address his drinking problem. Reggie also has a heel realization after sneaking into Eloise's room with intent to take her away from Elliot; he sees through her drawings and the photos on the wall, including one of her mother, that she loves all her family and that his actions will only end up hurting Eloise. He gives up on trying to take her and rescues Elliot from drowning before apologizing for the death of Eloise's mother and withdrawing his custody bid.
  • Jerk Ass Has A Point: Jeremiah is entirely correct that Reggie is a drug addict and a criminal, calling him a "walking stereotype."
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: Surprisingly averted: While Elliot's daughter died giving birth to Eloise, Elliot makes it painfully clear that he places that blame entirely on Reggie.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Rowena assumes that Elliot is racist because he refuses to ignore Eloise's Caucasian heritage, referring to her as "half-black, half-white" while Rowena and her family only refer to her as black. Rowena's lawyer/brother makes matters worse by deliberately arranging for a black judge and bringing up the fact that Elliot had referred to Reggie as the "n-word" in a fit of rage. Elliot is disgusted by the lawyer playing the race card and brutally defies the trope himself. He calls Jeremiah out on his behavior and delivers a painful "Reason You Suck" Speech, laying out exactly why he called Reggie that slur (it was how he referred to himself in text conversations with Elliot's daughter, so that was all he could think about when he was that angry), showing remorse for doing so, and explaining why he hates Reggie so much (being an irresponsible drug addict and criminal who never showed remorse over what happened to Elliot's daughter).
  • Oscar Bait: Considering the subject matter, it was almost certainly intended to be this, however, it wasn't nominated for any Oscar.
  • Profiling: It is the threat of racial profiling that makes Jeremiah extremely reluctant to involve Reggie in the custody battle. Reggie is a drug-addict and a convicted felon, and Jeremiah doesn't want the stereotypical image of the black druggie convict damaging their case, especially since he's not convinced that Reggie is clean. He acquiesces to Rowena's insistence that Reggie is the father and therefore deserves to be involved. Unfortunately, Jeremiah was right all along about that if nothing else.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Eloise has been raised from birth by her maternal grandparents. Her mother died in childbirth, and while her father is alive, he can't exactly be considered good parenting material.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Jeremiah gives a scathing one to Reggie, bluntly pointing out how he's a walking embodiment of every bad stereotype White People have against Black People.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: While it's not actually said in the movie, this is how Elliot sees Reggie's impregnation of his daughter. Averted at the end: when Reggie saves Elliot from drowning (after a knife/fist/coffee mug fight while Elliot was drunk and Reggie was high on crack), Reggie finally apologizes for the death of Elliot's daughter, and withdraws his bid at the hearing the next day, admitting his unpreparedness to be in Eloise's life. This seems to be enough to convince Elliot not to tell the judge what happened, sparing Reggie drug, assault, attempted murder, B&E, and attempted kidnapping charges.