Filmmaker Mike Binder's latest, Black or White, is a family film about a wealthy white grieving widower and grandfather (Kevin Coster) who is battling the grandmother (Octavia Spencer) of his biracial granddaughter for custody of the little girl. Grandma is represented in court by her sleazy attorney brother (Anthonie Mackie), who audiences are led to believe is all too eager to play the "race card" to win the case.
Family drama. Cute kid. Everyone gets along in the end. What could go wrong? Well, a lot. And, it's the same thing that goes wrong in a lot of films that make earnest attempts to tackle race in America.
Here's how Forbes Contributor Rebecca Theodore-Vachon put it, in a piece arguing that the film is just the latest "reductive narrative about race" that reinforces stereotypes and tries to cast racism as a problem of individual people of different colors having hard time getting along — when it's obviously a lot more complicated than that:
Perhaps what is most disappointing about "Black or White" is that filmmaker Mike Binder and Costner sincerely believe these types of movies can help to heal the racial divide in our country. The problem is this type of condescending, faux-progressiveness can serve to be just as toxic as outright bigotry. If you aren't going to tackle the ways racism and White privilege are ingrained into the very fabric of our country, then you're really just maintaining the status quo.
Dr. Jason Johnson, a political analyst and a professor of political science at Hiram College, told Theodore-Vachon the way Black or White fails is nothing new. "It is part of a genre movie we have always had, that's making a comeback which I like to call the ‘Reasonable White Man' movie,'" he said. "They are films that are ostensibly about race but are extended polemics where so-called progressive Whites are saying ‘I'm the only one who has a reasonable perspective on this and Blacks are irrational and unreasonable.'"
(Read the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg's takedown of the film for examples of the various plot elements that help to deliver this message)
Even the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Mike Scott, who praised the movie in his review, admitted, "most of Binder's characters — seemingly living up to the film's title — are little more than types, with little nuance to them." As a result, he concluded, the film "has its problems, but they are largely outweighed by the film's undeniably good intentions."
"Good intentions" as an excuse? That's where fans and critics of this and other predictable "race films" disagree.