BLACK OR WHITE
In Black or White, no one is easily pegged as a hero or a villain. It's a
rousing story of two sides of a family whose best protective impulses might just
prevent them from seeing what a child needs most. "People who see this film will
have no choice but to feel something and to have strong opinions," says Andre
Holland (Selma), who plays Eloise's father, Reggie. "This movie will definitely
start conversations and bring up some potent feelings. I think that's what art
is supposed to do-help us see each other in different ways."
Elliott believes his granddaughter is best off in his protected world. He can't
see what she might be missing. "The world Rowena provides is a world that
Elliott doesn't completely understand," says Costner. "He's just afraid of it,
afraid of South Central. He knows his own world and he thinks his fence and his
alarms will keep [Eloise] safe."
It's a battle, of wills-a battle over what makes a family-that will leave
audiences moved, says Spencer. "Whether you're with Elliott and against Rowena,
or if you're with Rowena and
against Elliott, by the end of the movie, if you can't find your way to the
middle, there's something wrong."
Black or White was inspired by writer-director Mike Binder's own family, in
which his wife's sister died, leaving a seven-year-old, biracial boy without
parents. Binder and his wife, Diane, and one of her brothers stepped in to help
raise the child, bringing him from their Santa Monica home to his estranged
father's family in South Central, Los Angeles for weekend visits. Binder was
struck by the dramatic differences between the two worlds, as well as by the
families' similarities. "I wanted to do a piece about where we go forward in
racial relations in this country," he says. "I wanted us to have a
Binder reached out early to Costner. He'd been sending the actor scripts ever
since they first collaborated on 2005's The Upside of Anger. "He's so prolific
as a writer," says Costner. "All the scripts were good, and they kind of smelled
like me. [But] they were all near-misses for me."
The actor passed on every one, until Black or White. "I was taken with the first
page of the script," he says. "I was emotional, and that's hard to do-to do
emotion off of a page in a script and to do so early on in a script. A lot of
times you can build something to the point where you're terribly moved, but
Mike's writing was very precise."
When the movie opens, it's the darkest day of Elliott's life: he has just
learned of his wife's death in a car crash. Costner was impressed by how Binder
used this crushing event to gradually reveal the story. "The onion begins to
peel back," he says, "and he goes home to an empty house. Only it's not empty.
Inside is a little girl, a black child. And you're thinking, 'What movie am I
in?' Mike keeps us right on the edge."
And yet even a captivating script by a proven screenwriter is not necessarily
enough to attract the financing needed to produce a film. "It was clear to me
that the movie wasn't going to be made," says Costner. "And it wasn't going to
be made because its value was being questioned overseas. That irritated me
because I feel this movie is very commercial. I feel it represents all the ideas
that we love about cinema and touches those notes beautifully."
So Costner stepped in to help finance Black or White himself, a move he hasn't
made on a film he's starring in since 1990's Dances with Wolves. "Those people
out there who are looking for movies [to finance] should have been running
towards this movie, but they weren't." He also brought on executive producer
Cassian Elwes (Dallas Buyers Club). "Kevin is such a good barometer for himself
of the types of movies that work for him," says Elwes. "Reading the script, you
could just see him in it, and knowing what he would bring to the table would
just elevate the movie."
By being involved as a producer, Costner ensured that key moments in the script
were not lost. "I have done this before in my career and I felt Black or White
was worth doing, and I'd do it again. For me, it was easy to see this as a
movie, and easy to see audiences watching this in the dark."
Black or White debuted to a standing ovation at the 2014 Toronto International
Film Festival. And that was the beginning of Binder's hoped-for conversation
about family, race, and the willful blindness that can stop us from seeing our
own failings. "There aren't too many movies with a story that forces you to
think," says Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), who plays Jeremiah, Rowena's
brother, a lawyer who represents her case in court by pushing his sister to
aggressively take Elliot down. "What Mike has given us is a three-dimensional
story with three-dimensional characters."
Black or White is anchored by three exceptional leading performances: Costner,
who has never been in finer form; Spencer, who commands attention in every
frame; and Estell, who at seven years old gives a dazzling big-screen debut.
"Jillian Estell managed to come in here and really hold this movie together with
a nuanced performance," says Estell's leading man, Costner.
"We saw a lot of tape and we narrowed it down to three girls," says Producer
Todd Lewis. "We had, I believe, two of them read with Kevin. And Jillian just
knocked it out of the park. The rest was pretty easy."
Binder is a veteran screenwriter and stand-up comedian whose two careers
blossomed simultaneously. In March of 1990, his first produced screenplay, Coupe
de Ville, made it to theaters. That same month, Binder's stand-up special
debuted on HBO (his acting career developed in the years that followed).
Binder's writing for movies and television has always straddled the genres of
comedy and drama, from his HBO series "Mind of a Married Man" to the films The
Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me, he has explored such themes as masculinity,
grief and rage, while never allowing his stories to get too bogged down in grave
"Mike has this way of telling real-life stories and you're getting a lesson but
you don't realize it," says Spencer. "And you're enjoying yourself, but it
really makes you ponder or assess yourself."
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