I haven’t seen Kevin Costner in a movie since the nineties when he was dancing with wolves and saving Whitney Houston from a crazed stalker, but he’s still got it. In “Black or White,” which he financed himself in order to bring it to fruition, he plays a white-collar alcoholic whose wife recently passed, and which suddenly raises the question of whether or not he should retain custody of his young, bi-racial granddaughter (Jillian Estell). Although Kevin gets along with the girl’s other grandmother (Octavia Spencer), he has a strained relationship with the father, a convicted felon and drug user, (Andre Holland), who he holds responsible for his daughter’s death. Since the daughter passed, Kevin and his wife have taken care of Jillian her entire life. They live in a gorgeous mansion-like home in a district with the best schools, etc., while the grandmother lives in a far more modest neighborhood. Nevertheless, she has some valid points about her granddaughter needing to be in touch with her culture. Spencer also does a terrific job with her role, managing to give it more dimensions than just the stereotypical sassy black woman.
To prepare for what he suspects is going to be a tough battle, Kevin, who is a lawyer, hires a colleague who he’s mentored, and Octavia hires her nephew (Anthony Mackie), who is disgusted (and says so) with Andre’s lifestyle, but nevertheless agrees to represent him. Both sides decide after some debate that it’s okay to get ugly if that’s what needs to be done to win the case. His friend will focus on the dad’s criminal history and general absence from his daughter’s life, and the opposing side will emphasize Kevin’s drinking and the fact that he’s a single dad who must eventually return to work full time.
Kevin’s character’s alcoholism is an open secret among his colleagues and his relations, but unsurprisingly, he’s defensive enough to thwart any attempts at genuine intervention. After his wife passes, he decides to take time off from work, in order to devote himself to caring for his granddaughter. Because she needs help in math, and Kevin is also an indifferent math student, he hires a tutor (Mpho Koaho), who understands something about grief, and who eventually begins to accompany Kevin places, when he is too inebriated to drive himself. Kevin’s son-in-law shows up, hinting that he’ll make the case easy for Kevin to win, if he’ll give him money – which eventually, as the viewer suspects, backfires. Another complication develops when Kevin uses the n-word and has, in an Oscar-clip type moment, to explain his choice of terms in the courtroom.
The custody battle has a rather odd conclusion, involving a scene where someone falls into a pool and sees the light. All the good points that one side has made are no longer alluded to, and Kevin winds up with the granddaughter, though in an ending scene, it’s clear he’s going away to get help with his addiction. The granddaughter ends up happy, though, which of course, was the goal of both Kevin and Octavia all along, despite them having different ideas on how to go about securing it.