Toronto Film Festival: Kevin Costner's Latest Is Shockingly Tone-Deaf About Race

Plus reports on hidden Toronto gems Bird People and Eden, and the spoiled monsters of The Riot Club

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It's hard to imagine that writer/director Mike Binder set out to make a film as tone-deaf to racial issues as he does in Black and White. He's seemingly coming from the honest place of wanting to have a "conversation" about the way we deal with race in the U.S. It also seems like that "conversation" begins and ends with understanding the old white men whom we label as racists. People talk about movies dealing with race as "risky." Maybe what they're risking is coming across like Black and White does.

Kevin Costner plays a cranky, loving Grandpa who's taking care of his half-black granddaughter. His daughter passed in childbirth. His wife is killed in a car accident shortly before the film begins. The girl's father is out of the picture, but his family, led by matriarch Octavia Spencer, is a veritable army of warmth and support, and they think they know why Costner is so unwilling to let the girl get too close to them. So far so good, right? The wheels come off quickly. Spencer's character is depicted strangely, halfway sassy comic relief, halfway warm-but-benign mama. She's no ghetto stereotype (owns her own business; polite, partnered lesbian daughter living across the street) except in that we're ultimately not supposed to take her as seriously as we do Costner.

By the time the girl's shiftless, drug-addicted father, Reggie, comes into the picture, we're in trouble. Costner's reasons for hating the guy are personal, not racial, and wholly understandable for the target (white) audience. This guy took up with his then-seventeen-year-old-daughter, knocked her up, isolated her from her family, killed her (via childbirth), and then took off. The movie deals with the notion that Costner's vehemence against this guy might be racially-goosed, but the far more insistent theme appears to be "how can this grandfather oppose this black family in court without being painted as a racist?" At one point, one of Costner's colleagues goes all "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" about how they won't get anywhere in court by going after this black male. "It's the world we're living in," the guy says. Obviously Binder wouldn't have known that "the world we're living in" treats young black males the way we've seen in Ferguson, Missouri. But surely he was able to see how "the world we're living in" treats young black males the way it treated Trayvon Martin. It's almost unbelievable, how matter-of-fact, and how telling, that line is.

Also unbelievable:

  • the film seems to suggest that black mothers (via Spencer's character) have blind spots for, and are too coddling of, their sons.
  • shaming Reggie in court for not knowing how to spell his daughter's name
  • very clearly parallelling the father's drug addiction with Costner's alcoholism, sending them both away to figure their shit out, and still not interrogating why Costner is so self-evidently superior a guardian.
  • the scattered applause in my audience after Costner's witness-stand denunciation of Reggie's "broken down black ass."
  • the Tyler Perry-esque black-mother-slaps-her-no-good-son scene, which appears to have been engineered as half-comedic, half-rousing, only this audience wasn't having it.

Again, intentions appear to have been quite pure going into this film. And the ultimate conclusion, as you might expect, involves a kind of cooperation and rallying lovingly around the child. But this is what examining systematic racism through the eyes of an old, rich, white man gets you, and it's baffling that nobody making Black and White seems to have noticed.

Elsewhere at the Fest ...

Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love) has directed my favorite film of the festival so far, the immersive and lovingly personal Eden, which takes you into the last two decades of European dance music (garage, most specifically) through a half-dozen characters working the scene (including Daft Punk). "Sorry my film isn't about Greta Gerwig dating Daft Punk," said Hansen-Løve before the film began, referring to the marketing that has trumpeted the film's two most familiar (but sparely used) elements. Even without those hooks, Eden would be a total must-see, regardless of your interest in rave/house/dance music. It's a story told with refreshing warmth but enough distance to keep its characters honest, and its energy has been a welcome respite from some of TIFF's disappointments.

I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t walk into director Pascal Ferran’s Bird People with an eye towards justifying why Josh Charles left The Good Wife. "I HOPE THESE MOVIES WERE WORTH IT!" I did not holler at him from my seat. But I have to tell you, if he's going to be flexing his creative muscles with movies as artistically nimble as this one, good for him. Charles plays an American on a business trip in Paris who makes a rather monumental life decision, seemingly on the spot. His story intersects with that of one of the maids at his hotel. She's played by French actress Anaïs Demoustier, a wide-eyed doppelganger for Shailene Woodley if I ever saw one. It's be irresponsible of me to say anything more about the plot, except to say that its rhythms in its first half don't prepare you for the turn it takes in its second half, and that's a good thing.

Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) once again targets the British class system in The Riot Club, though the results turn out to be embarrassingly ham-fisted at times. Come for the handsome cast (including Douglas Booth, Max Irons, Sam Claflin, and other handsome faces you might remember as the love interests in American fantasy/YA films), who largely do some great work in service of a story that appears to bottom out at Claflin, as an Oxford secret-society brat/monster, shouting angrily "I AM SICK TO FUCKING DEATH OF POOR PEOPLE." 

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