In town recently to promote his new film “Black or White” (opening Friday), Kevin Costner admitted that making the film opened his eyes to new aspects of the age-old debate about racism in America.
In the film, he plays a recently widowed, wealthy Los Angeles attorney who is raising his mixed-race granddaughter in the wake of his wife’s recent death. The child has been living with her white grandparents since their daughter died giving birth to little Eloise, secretly fathered by an African-American man who has not played a role of any kind in his daughter’s upbringing.
Following the death of the white grandmother, Eloise’s black grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer, goes to court to sue for full custody of the little girl — claiming the child should be raised by her and her African-American relatives.
For Costner, the issues the film delves into “made me think about notions of race that I found really enlightening, because I’ve certainly struggled with this and watched the whole struggle over race my whole life, essentially. Reading the script, that just jumped out at me. It actually helped me think about how to have this discussion in real life going forward.”
The actor and filmmaker said that when he reads a script that moves him the way “Black or White” does, he doesn’t hesitate. “I understand that it not only makes me think about issues in a new way, it means I need to make a movie about those issues — and the way they are presented in the script.”
That was the feeling he had for a number of films that are a huge part of his cinematic history. “Whether it was ‘Dances With Wolves’ or ‘Field of Dreams’ or this movie, the experience of getting involved in this story reminded me very clearly of those other movies in my past — and the struggle to get them made, too.”
As for his fellow Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Costner called her “a good partner” in the project. “She understood that it was a good chance to say something out loud that might help and inform other people. That it might be a good jumping-off point to have this discussion — to talk about a subject like race, something we’re having a lot of difficulty with.”
Anthony Mackie plays the brother of Spencer’s character, a successful attorney who realizes his nephew (Eloise’s father) is a total loser — a drug addict and ex-con who has never amounted to much.
Mackie nodded as Costner pointed out that his character’s contempt for Eloise’s dad is less about race than about something else.
“Sometimes our differences are more honest than that. It can boil down to the fact that I just don’t like you. I don’t like how you behave. I doesn’t have anything to do with race, but when there’s a lot at stake, that race card CAN be played — and played by both sides, white or black.
Since both Mackie and Costner play attorneys in “Black or White,” I asked if they thought they could be good lawyers in real life.
Mackie had a quick comeback.
“Lawyers have to be good actors. You’ve got to believe the guy you’re defending is innocent, and you have to sell that 100 percent in a courtroom. If you’re on the other side, you have to believe the guy you’re going up against is guilty and make that case totally believable as well.”
Costner said he was convinced Mackie would be as great a lawyer as he is an actor. “Sometimes in those courtroom scenes he would get so close and be so intimidating I couldn’t look at him. But he kept going right at me. It was nerve-wracking.”
In the end, both actors agreed with the feeling that “Black or White” presents a touchy subject in a way that will make people think as well as be entertained.
As Mackie put it, “The most important thing about doing this movie is that I believe it will start a conversation — and I don’t have a problem with a conversation becoming an argument.”
For Costner, in the end, he hopes that people will come to “Black or White” and “maybe, just maybe, they will walk out thinking and feeling a bit different than they did when they walked into that theater. That’s what a great movie can do, and I believe this is a great movie.”