It seems that contemporary conversations on race are often generated through film. Not surprisingly, recent block buster race films such as 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, and The Help are written and or produced by white people. While conversations of race should be front and center in contemporary culture, films like Black or White fake the discussion with unwavering stereotypes and a predictable ending.
Black or White features the cliche controlling images of interracial custody lawsuits. Eliot Anderson (Kevin Kostner), has just lost his wife in a car accident. The accident makes him a widower, and an instant single parent to granddaughter Eloise. Despite absentee father Reggie Davis (Andre Holland), Eloise’s paternal grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) wages a paternity suit to ensure that her contact with Eloise does not falter with the death of Eloise’s maternal grandmother.
Emerging as a resurrected Losing Isaiah, Black or White features yet another storyline where black children are torn between black and white worlds. These films intend to be groundbreaking, but instead feature children as pawns in racism. Both feature overtly flawed custody options: a drug-laden black side where substance impedes judgement and clouds parental ability, and a white side portrayed as accidental racists that predictably prove victorious.
Eloise’s father Reggie Davis is portrayed as the emasculated black male whose enabling mother nurtures his hollow navigation through life. Davis proves extremely hard to watch, depicted as a loose cannon who is without the self esteem he finds in drug use. Davis’ portrayal is simplified, as it is easy to peg him as yet another deadbeat parent any child is better without. However, Davis’ still waters run deep, representing the rocky road of self love black men are often made to tread barefoot. Paternity is different for black males, as their disenfranchisement often complicates their ability to provide for themselves and their children.
Black or White complicates its perpetuation the deadbeat dad trope in the details surrounding Eloise’s conception. While it certainly stands out as odd that Eloise is being raised by her grandparents, we do not learn until the middle of the film that Eloise’s seventeen year old mother Jillian, died during childbirth. Jillian isolated herself from her family in the final weeks of her hidden pregnancy by her then twenty-three year old boyfriend Reggie Davis.
Pegged as abuse by Anderson, the relationship seems an unnecessary addition to the story. It’s addition to the story further diminish Davis’ two dimensional character as both a man and a father, while painting Anderson as a grieving father who rightfully resents Davis.
Davis is depicted as Jillian’s rapist, an accidental father and the indirect cause of her untimely death, rather than synonymous with the young fathers of MTV’s hit show Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, who often mirror (and mask) the age gap seen between the late Jillian and Davis. This subtle accusations of rape substantiates the unwavering trope of black men as sexual threats to white women. This is yet another self-serving representation consistent with a jaded history, in a film supposedly created to generate cultural conversation.
The Varying Dimensions of Darkness and Whiteness
Anderson’s character is depicted beyond his whiteness, as his character is three dimensional. Yes he is white, but he is also a widower, an attorney, a brother, a grandfather, and a grieving father. Davis on the other hand is two dimensional, and while Anderson is painted beyond the dynamics of race, Davis is painted within.
Despite’s Eliot’s battle with substance abuse, his addiction is portrayed comedically. Anderson is seen slurring words, and consistently functioning in a drunken stupor around his young granddaughter. However, the depiction of Eliot’s alcoholism allows him to maintain his dignity, a privilege not extended to Reggie Davis. This depiction correlates to society’s polar perceptions of how black and white males wear substance abuse.
There is a reason given for each and every action rendered by Anderson throughout the film. Even when Anderson refers to Davis as a “street nigger” he is given the chance to explain himself. Referencing this language as mirroring how Davis referred to himself in conversations with his late daughter Jillian, Anderson is able to provide an explanation that resonates with the courtroom as well as the film’s audiences.
This explanation bothered me as it suggests equity within black and white male relations, an equity that is non existent. While I am not a supporter of the use of the “n” word, I do feel as if its use by black americans is vastly different than when used by white Americans. Although both uses are problematic, whites and blacks stand bear a vastly different connection to this troubling word. To whites “nigger” is a slur synonymous to “bitch,” or a once offensive word often used freely by those it was designed to offend. To conscious blacks “nigger” is the scar on the permanently disfigured backs of our ancestors, it is the sting of a world that sees our brown and black skin as tokens of our inferiority.
So personally, Anderson’s use of the “n” word in anger was not cast the scrutiny it deserved. Anderson’s use of the word should have cast a query of whether he would refer to his granddaughter the way he referred to her father. This moment was anticlimactic in the cowardice of a movie that presents but does not deliver in moments of racial tension.
Intertwining Feminist Views
While on trial, Anderson correlates initially noticing a black person’s skin color to first noticing breasts on a woman. The juxtaposition of breasts and skin color are a reinforcement of white feminist views that parallel gender to race. While women are also marginalized in a society dominated by white males, they are not marginalized in a manner that mirrors the black experience. As an individual marked by both race and gender, I can personally attest to being seen as black before being acknowledged as female.
Gender is a concealed quality, race is overt. Noticing a woman’s breasts sexualized her, noticing skin color aligns an individual with a series of beliefs that place them among the limitations of a racialized society. This statement is strategically placed to redeem Anderson from the smoke of his racial anxiety, which only adds insult to injury. Men are often pardoned for checking women out, and Anderson’s statement seems to suggest that whites should be pardoned for reducing blacks to their race. Given the colonial history of blacks and whites, it is this initial racial perception that resulted in the permanent damage to the black diaspora, so to suggest a pardon is an inappropriate as it is insulting.
The Man in the Mirror
The film’s title references the late and great Michael Jackson’s famed hit “Black or White.” As a Michael Jackson fan, there is a feeling of nostalgia that runs through me seeing his song as a title of a movie years after he has left us. However, perhaps his self reflective hit “Man in the Mirror” would have been a better title for a revolutionary race film. Unlike the song “Black or White,” “Man in the Mirror” asks listeners to look within themselves as the initial step in changing the world. Looking to the “Man in the Mirror” would offer a resounding proposition to white male protagonist Eliot Anderson, and the white male viewership he represents.
However, rather than challenge the white male protagonist to look inward, in the final moments of the film Rowena and Reggie willingly withdraw their battle for custody of young Eloise. While this seemingly reflects doing what is right, it rather reflects doing things the “white” way. The Davis’ decision to grant Anderson an unearned victory shys away from holding Anderson legally responsible for his flaws. Their actions inadvertently paint Anderson in the image of white privilege in granting him an unearned reward.
When will Hollywood get that films that do not challenge their viewers fail to change anything?
It is my belief that Hollywood does not wish to truly discuss race. Rather, Hollywood wishes to appear to take strides in racial conversations, while issuing self congratulatory portrayals.
Films like Black or White are seemingly presented as for the general public, but are actually for white people by white people.Thus, Black or White and films like it fail to solve as many issues as they create. Until Hollywood terminated its perpetuation of racial stereotypes, the racial conversation will continue to be on mute.
Perhaps because whites created this faulty construct of blackness, they feel justified in telling the black story. However, while the construct of blackness was not developed by black people, white people did not invent, discover or configure black people. With that being said, stories of the black experience cannot be properly narrated by white people, for it is simply not their story to tell.