Lot of talking adds little substance to ‘Black or White’

Have you noticed that Kevin Costner gives good speeches? He deftly handled his classic “I believe in …” speech in “Bull Durham” and his courtroom summations in “JFK.”

He recently got a lifetime achievement award at the Critics Choice Awards, where he spoke pointedly about remembering to be grateful. His Oscar acceptance speeches for “Dances with Wolves” were pretty good, too.

Costner must like having writer-director Mike Binder create roles for him, because Binder likes to write speeches. Ten years ago in “The Upside of Anger,” Binder gave Costner a juicy part, and there’s more talk on tap in “Black or White,” their new collaboration.

This time out, the speeches just about wreck it. Or they would, if the movie weren’t already on a wobbly track.

Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a successful L.A. lawyer whose wife has just died. This leaves him with custody of their granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estelle); his daughter died in childbirth seven years earlier.

The movie’s big conflict is how Elliot resists the attempts of Eloise’s other grandparent, Rowena (Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for “The Help”), to share custody — and whether his antagonism has anything to do with the fact that Rowena and her family are black.

This supposedly hot-button issue feels painfully forced. Elliot is cool enough with Rowena’s family, he just doesn’t like her irresponsible son (a good turn by Andre Holland). And Rowena radiates big-hearted goodness, as well as being a successful small-business owner.

Thus it’s hard to believe a legal case will be pressed out of this, no matter how hard Costner and Binder try to paint Elliot as a hard-drinking egotist. We suspect he’ll come through in the end.

It builds to a trial, or a hearing, where lawyers and witnesses alike behave in ways that seem very loose and theatrical. And then Elliot gets his big speech, an attempt to keep it real about white people and race and how maybe everything exists in a gray area instead of being just … well, you know.

You’re free to like this speech or not like it, but that’s the moment “Black or White” slips definitively from character study to lecture. In retrospect, the whole movie feels rigged to make points about its subject, rather than illuminate the complexities of its people.

“Black or White” 2 stars

Kevin Costner fights for custody of his granddaughter, opposed by the girl’s other surviving grandparent (Octavia Spencer); he is white, she is black, and the movie tries to push a hot-button issue about race. It’s hard to believe these generally nice people would press a legal case, so the movie feels rigged to make points about its subject, rather than explore its people.

Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Edmonds Theater, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, Thornton Place Stadium 14, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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