Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
2 Corinthians 5:16-19
The rich think they know it all, but the poor can see right through them.
Director/writer Mike Binder leads his talented cast in presenting a thought-provoking story about the racial divide that persists in present day America. It is far less prickly than last year’s Justin Simien’s Dear White People, or anything produced by Spike Lee—after all, Mike Bender is a white liberal (emphasis on “white”)—but it is still a good film for a group to see and discuss. In addition, it provides an opportunity for us to see Kevin Costner in another good role.
Costner portrays Elliott Anderson, a wealthy married attorney in Santa Monica who has been raising biracial 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) because their daughter died during childbirth and the crack-addicted black husband had run away. The film begins in a hospital where Elliott is devastated by the news that his wife Carol has died from injuries received in a car accident. At home the next morning, as he tries to brush Eloise’s bushy hair, he is unable to reveal that her grandmother has died. It is only when he picks her up after school that he breaks the bad news, beginning with, “We had a bad night last night.”
Elliott’s way of coping with grief (and we suspect other problems, his prominently displayed liquor collection is very large!) is to pour himself another dirnk, and then another. His brother tries to get him to contact a friend in AA, but Elliott’s is the typical denial by the heavy drinker. The phone rings frequently, the caller being from the African-American side of the family, Grandma Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), whom Eloise calls “Wee Wee.” He fails to respond to her persistent messages. Only at the funeral service do they at last talk.
Elliott’s reluctance to talk things through with Rowena is a bad idea. This lady, who is the matriarch of a large extended family, has pulled everyone up by their bootstraps by starting six small companies in her garage. Virtually all of them are employed in some capacity in the family businesses. Thus, although the Jeffers live on the other side of L.A. in a neighborhood where crack is available, they are not at all poor. Rowena wants to see her granddaughter more otfen, and she is too smart to believe in the sincerity of Elliott’s reply, “Come by any time you like.” This is a lady who will take no b.s., and when Elliott continues to keep them apart, she threatens a lawsuit over custody. She has the means to pursue it, her nephew Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie) also being a crack lawyer.
Needing help (mathematics has advanced far beyond what it was when he was in grade school), Elliott hires the over-achieving African immigrant Anthony (Mpho Koaho) to tutor Eloise. Soon the ambitious young man is also serving as chauffer because of Elliott’s heavy drinking. Much of the humor is provided by this character who sets out to learn a new language whenever he is under stress—and suggests that his employer substitute learning a language for his drinking. Whenever Anthony accompanies Elliott to visit the Jeffers’ crowded home the clan stares at him as if he were an exotic speciman totally foreign to their experience.
Elliott and Rowena argue back and forth about their granddaughter’s need to learn more of her black heritage. Elliott insists, “She’s NOT black! She’s HALF black!” It becomes evident that liberal though he is, there persists a trace of racism deep within him, even though in court he denies this. He does use the “N” word during a heated encounter between himself and Reggie, the granddaughter’s father now having returned. Rowena intends to use him as part of her plan to gain custody of Eloise. (Reggie, interestingly, is played by Andre Holland, who in Selma played the far more positive character Andrew Young.) The courtroom scenes are very engaging, enhanced by actress Paula Newsome who plays the no-nonsense Judge Cummins.
As the trial proceeds, with some very dramatic encounters out of court between Reggie and Elliott, the young black man claiming that he has been clean of drugs after engaging in an out of town rehab program, we begin to wonder what about Eloise’s welfare in all of the proceedings. Fortunately the adults also come to this realization. Rowena proves to be the more mature of the two antagonists in that she remains free from vindictiveness. Will it be possible for them to see that a courtroom–which in our justice system is viewed as an arena for combat with winners and losers–is not the proper place to decide the fate of a child with deep ties to both sides of the fight? The conclusion demonstrates that all of the principals grow in maturity by the conclusion, including the seemingly hopeless Reggie. The outcome affects us greatly in part because of the strong performance by little Jillian Estell. She is indeed a winsome child who captures the heart, innocent concerning the racial motives of those contending for the custody of her future.
I don’t know how much this “Inspired by a true incident” film has been fictionalized, but it rings true, providing a real contribution to important ongoing racial dialogue that our divided nation needs. As a white liberal myself I still bear the imprint of my racist parents, never totally free deep down in my psyche of those odious labels once used to insult and keep apart the races. Thus I have come to call myelf “a recovering racist.” Whether or not Elliott realizes it, for whites racism can be as addictive as alcohol. I hope that he also will come to understand this. If he does his precious Eloise will inherit, and help shape, a far better society than that of her elders, perhaps a bit closer to Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Society.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables.