Kevin Costner has worked so consistently since the late 1980s that his recent uptick in output hardly merits the term “renaissance.” All the same, there’s something classically old-timey about the two roles the Hollywood actor plays this month in Black or White and McFarland, USA. Playing a wealthy Santa Monica lawyer in the former and a cross-country coach for Mexican American high schoolers in the latter, Costner’s up to his old tricks: He’s as craggy, wise-cracking, and charming as ever. As the sympathetic father figure who’s just rough enough around the edges, Costner’s performances recall the vintage roles that jumpstarted his career in the ’80s and ’90s, and he’s quite frankly never been better.
But it’s the rebirth of the "classic" Costner archetype that may be the problem. Both films have come under fire for their outdated approaches to race: Black or White has been targeted for its questionable depiction of a child-custody case that's fragmented along color lines. It’s been called a righteous moral lesson and an exercise in “exalting Whiteness by marginalizing Blackness.” To a similar but lesser extent, his inspirational sports movie McFarland, USA has invoked some groans among critics who recognize its “white savior” premise. Some say it transcends its paradigmatic trappings—others have claimed it’s a film about about easing white people into a more diverse America.
All this attention has brought into sharp focus the fact that in 2015, the paternal everyman Costner plays so well has been stripped of his universality. That’s not to say these movies don’t try to reconcile the type with America's changing society: The court drama in Black or White pairs Costner with Octavia Spencer as two equally flawed but devoted grandparents fighting for custody of their young, biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). McFarland, USA, which takes place in 1987, at least shifts its focus from Coach White’s awkward multicultural education long enough to develop lead runner Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) as a compelling character. But the promise of a fully-balanced portrait is never realized in either film, both of which struggle to be Kevin Costner films and films about diversity.
Black or White is the more well-intended effort to forge a new way forward with a father figure like Costner on the marquee. The film struggled with funding before Costner came on board, enraptured by Mike Binder’s semi-biographical script—and it’s not hard to see why. In an attempt to reach a feel-good conclusion, Black or White splits its formidable cast along racial and socioeconomic lines in the custody battle for Eloise: The Compton household under the leadership of Rowena (Spencer) is pitted against Costner and his mansion in Santa Monica. Under advisement from her lawyer, Rowena makes her case “about race”; consulting his partners at the firm, Anderson makes his about her good-for-nothing, druggie son—Eloise’s father Reggie (André Holland). Among other issues, this is a movie that tries to tackle race in a fresh way—head-on—with stale stereotypes.
But the most damning part about Black or White is that despite its emphasis on equivalence for both sides, and its message of love how transcends perceived differences, there’s no question that Costner is treated as the star. As an alcoholic whose addiction consistently impedes his relationship with his daughter, he’s not likeable on paper—yet the fact that he wins the audience’s sympathy lies in simple cinematic math: He’s in 90 percent of the scenes. He gets the most memorable dialogue, including a speech that name-drops the title, and which Costner has said reminded him of 1988’s Bull Durham and 1991’s JFK. Spoiler alert: He gets the girl. None of this is at all surprising for a Costner movie—but as a relatively novel film tackling the topic of race, it’s disappointing.
Is it even possible for a white movie star best-known for playing paternal figures to make a decent movie about race? McFarland, USA isn’t an answer in the affirmative, though it's a better film, simply because it executes an old formula marginally more creatively. Costner is the necessary figurehead on top of a paint-by-numbers affair that fits tidily into the successful studio genre that debuted Million Dollar Arm, Glory Road, and Cool Runnings. This time, it's set in McFarland, CA, the troubled youth are Latino, and their heroic athletic mission is running.
But in its pained attempts to bring a beloved Disney genre into a new era, the script is ultimately a let down. It’s a familiar story about a journey, ostensibly about the one to the state championships, but more realistically about the one toward the heart-warming reconciliation of difference. But the journey is almost all Costner’s. He begins the story confused about what an enchilada is, and ends it throwing his daughter a quinceañera. How the Mexican American team comes to terms with his coaching style is less well-developed—they jokingly call him Blanco at first and question his privilege when he tries to schedule track practice after school. But in a key moment, they compromise by agreeing to attend practice after school and after picking fruit under the brutal California sun for a few hours. It’s only natural to wonder, after that development, what kind of a hero Costner’s character really is.
This isn't to say he’s not as affecting as ever: He tends to make something of even the most poorly written of scripts, so it’s no surprise that he manages to carry the hammiest lines in McFarland ("They carbo-load on rice and beans," "You're my anchor Danny, and not because you're fat"). He's also a generous actor who shares scenes instead of commanding them.
But ultimately it’s how good Costner is in these old-fashioned vehicles that is the most disappointing thing of all. Relativity Pictures put Black or White up for an Oscar-qualifying run probably due to Costner’s performance, which, separate from the movie, might have actually been deemed worthy of an Academy Award. His genuinely heartfelt turn redeems McFarland, USA from its otherwise hackneyed white-coach-and-minorities premise—it currently has a 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, where its critical consensus blurb says that the “old-hat” premise still works in part due to its “eminently likeable star.”
Critics have debated whether Black or White is as good as Kevin Costner’s performance, and some reviews have affirmed that he saves McFarland, USA. But it’s possible the opposite might also be true—that perhaps these movies need saving from Costner. Not from the man himself, who is by all accounts both charming and generous in sharing the clout and command he’s accumulated over a long and storied career. But from the archetype he's always embodied so well—the everyman who doesn't represent the dreams of a country the way he once used to.