by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)
Racial conflict and harmony is at the center of writer/director Mike Binder’s Black or White, which opened for national distribution in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri, riots and premieres this month on home video.
The film begins with the loss of an interracial child’s grandmother, which triggers a custody battle between the child’s grandfather (Kevin Costner) and other grandmother (Octavia Spencer). The girl’s mother had died in childbirth. As with writer and director Binder’s biting The Upside of Anger (2005), which also co-starred Kevin Costner, there is more to the story, including a cast of pivotal characters, a plot twist and a blend of comedy and drama. Like The Upside of Anger, this movie examines alcohol as rationalization. Add to this the matter of race.
Black or White, which premiered in 2014 at the Toronto Film Festival, is backed by Kevin Costner and distributed by Relativity and Fox Home Entertainment. The interview took place in Santa Monica, California. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran (SH): What’s the most rewarding response you’ve received regarding your new movie Black or White?
Mike Binder (MB): When we started testing this movie, and we started with a white audience in Pasadena. My wife and I saw that when Kevin [Costner] made his courtroom speech, it got applause. And I thought, I loved that the audience loved that speech but it’s not going to happen next week in Inglewood. The next week, when we went to Inglewood and played it to an all-black audience, it got a bigger applause. I thought I had lost confidence in myself because I had thought that people are not [fundamentally] that different and everyone is going to understand what that speech means when the white audience in Pasadena applauded—
SH: —because in that moment you became self-conscious about being white?
MB: Yes. So, in that moment when the movie got applause from an all-black audience, I thought, OK, I was right—people are not monolithic, people are not sheep. People think for themselves and they think much more alike. White people and black people—we are much more Americans than we are white or black and, flawed or not flawed, we are so much more similar than we think we are. So that was a great moment for me.
SH: Your movies [Indian Summer, The Upside of Anger, Reign Over Me] tend to portray damaged individuals seeking salvation from relationships based on shared values. Is unity a theme in your work?
MB: I do think that might be a common theme because it’s something I believe in. I really believe that waters need to flow into other waters. Just sitting by itself it’s a stagnant pond. I always say that anytime I’m by myself I’m in a bad neighborhood—I need to be with people. People bring the light out in me. When I’m spending too much time by myself, I’m in a bad crowd. All the thoughts in my head—and maybe this is because I’m a recovered alcoholic—I need to be around people in my life. If you want to know who someone is, find out who they spend time with.
SH: Is Kevin Costner’s character a racist?
MB: No, this character is not a racist. His problem is not with the fact that people are black. First of all, he’s very angry, so his problem is that he [feels that he] needs to protect this little girl. He never does anything in any situation in the movie that he doesn’t think is in her best interest. For example, when [her father] Reggie, the one guy [Costner’s character] doesn’t want around her, comes back around and says ‘give me some money and I’ll go away’, [Costner’s character] knows that that’s the absolute worst thing for the girl. When he reaches for the wallet, he says [to Reggie], you get yourself out to my house and bring a present and some flowers, that’s what [your daughter] needs. It’s not what he wants—he wants this guy gone—he’s looking out for her.
SH: Is Octavia Spencer’s character, Rowena, flawed?
MB: Yes. She doesn’t want to admit that her son has a drug problem and is a violent, erratic guy—and [Costner’s character] doesn’t feel safe for that reason. If her son were either sober or dead, [Costner’s character] would have no problem with shared custody. His problem is that he knows Rowena and he’s right. As soon as Reggie comes back, her brother [Anthony Mackie] says ‘we need to stick with shared custody because Reggie’s not the right guy’ and Rowena rejects that—as good as she is, as well-rounded as she is, she will force her son and the granddaughter together because she thinks that her son being in his daughter’s life will force him to be good, and [Costner’s character] knows that Reggie has to heal himself and it’s not the responsibility of a little girl to be the piece that fills his soul. Reggie’s got a hole in his soul and Rowena wants it to be filled by Eloise. As screwed up as [Costner’s character] is, he knows better.
SH: Did seeing Kevin Costner’s earlier pictures influence your direction and, if so, how?
MB: No. Because I’m a writer, not just a director, the script influences the performance. There’s a script, then the cast and crew come to the set and I don’t say much. It’s all on the page. The good actors understand that. On the set, I’ll ask if they want to try that again—but not much more than that. As a kid, when I was an actor, I worked with [writer and director] Barry Levinson on a [television] pilot based on his  movie Diner. He told me, ‘if I cast well, I don’t have to really do much as a director.” And that’s what I really feel. I feel that I have to get the script and cast right and that’s it. As a director, on set, I’m just there cheerleading. I don’t really direct Kevin Costner.
I’m 56. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve come to realize—especially when working with great actors—that I need to just get the hell out of the way. Don’t ask about old work. Let great actors build the characters. They’re really good at it. Directors don’t build characters. Anything you read about the directors I admire, such as Barry Levinson, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, even Cameron Crowe, shows that they know that the [director’s] job is not to overdo the job.
SH: What’s your favorite Kevin Costner movie?
MB: Field of Dreams. It’s such a great fable. It’s so American to me. I love the speech about baseball that James Earl Jones gives. I love Burt Lancaster talking about Moonlight Graham. I could watch those scenes over and over and over again.
SH: What’s your favorite Barry Levinson movie?
MB: Tin Man, maybe Avalon. There’s a moment in Avalon that’s just wonderful, when the man sits down in his chair and he wakes up and 20 years have gone by and the imagery is just, just—I think he’s one of the most underrated guys in cinema.
SH: Speaking of imagery, why do you linger on the sunrise over Los Angeles in Black or White?
MB: Which one? At the end, it’s to show a new day—a brand new day to figure things out.
SH: What drives Rowena?
MB: Family. She reminds me of my wife, Diane. Everything to her is about getting comfortable enough to shower family with love.
SH: Had you seen Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station when you cast her as Rowena?
MB: No. But I have seen it since. I love that movie. It’s one of my favorite movies from that year. She’s great in that movie in a very simple way—she chose to use very short strokes and she paints them in bigger, longer strokes in Black or White. She paints it a little broader in Black or White and I just think that’s her range.
SH: Is there an unscripted scene in which Octavia Spencer improvised?
MB: Yes. There’s a great scene that made the trailer. Rowena is with Eloise, who’s showing her grandmother her drawings and Rowena asks ‘how about the skinny [figure]? Is that me?’ and Eloise says ‘no’ and Rowena says, ‘oh, well. It’s not my favorite.’ She improvised that whole bit.
SH: What did Anthony Mackie contribute to his characterization?
MB: His intelligence. He’s not only street smart, Mackie’s people and world smart. I’ve traveled with him and we’re friends and we went to play golf and watch the Tigers play in Detroit, and he knows his [stuff]. He brought that to Jeremiah. He was not a clueless guy. I haven’t seen him as the Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier [review], but I had seen him in We Are Marshall, though the first time I really noticed him is in The Hurt Locker [review].
Scott Holleran (SH): What’s the biggest laugh line or scene?
MB: Probably the tutor on the witness stand showing the judge his papers—that’s always a huge laugh. Also, Elliott [Costner’s character] getting in the wrong car. Black and white audiences both see this as the same movie—there’s no racial difference in where there’s laughter.
SH: The staring contest scene between Rowena and the judge is also humorously received in my experience—and you gave a depth to the judge character.
MB: Again, that’s casting. Paula Newsome, who was also in Reign Over Me, is amazing. She really knows what she’s doing. I really like her a lot—I like that she can dig a lot of comedy and pathos.
SH: Have you seen and how do you appraise Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia?
MB: I loved it when it came out [in 1993]. Race plays a big role in that too. But here’s the thing—you asked a good question and maybe this is a flaw of mine. I really would like to make a movie a year where my body of work would reveal something to me about who I am—but I don’t really think about [past] movies that much. I don’t overthink and maybe I underthink some of this stuff. I don’t know any other way to do it. I think a lot of these filmmakers are maybe a little deeper than I am. There’s a great comedian’s line that ‘deep, deep, deep down, he’s incredibly shallow’. Honestly, that’s probably me. I’m not even that deep down. I don’t go back, though The Verdict is a movie that I watched recently. The scene with Kevin Costner’s character’s law office in Black or White is an homage to a scene in The Verdict. When I was writing Black or White, I thought this would have been a great role for Paul Newman [who starred in The Verdict].
SH: What’s the best movie about race?
MB: I like Do the Right Thing. I think it’s a very honest movie. I liked it; It didn’t pull any punches.
SH: What was the most common objection by studios to Black or White?
MB: That it isn’t going to play to black people or white people and that black audiences don’t want to see movies with black and white characters and that white audiences don’t want to see movies with black and white characters.
SH: Is it too soon for Black or White?
MB: I think people really want to see a movie about races coming together. This is a hot button issue and there are a lot of people that aren’t interested in this at all. I have a friend who says you go where the love is and that’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to go where the love is with this movie. I know who I am. I know what I want to say and do—and I’m too old to really care [what others think].
There are people on the right and on the left that live an agenda-based existence and see everything through agenda. [They] don’t really watch [a film] for the story that the filmmaker or the writer is trying to tell—they’re trying to “fix” it as they watch, saying, how could I make this go the way I think the world should go or the way I think blacks should think, rather than letting a movie play and experiencing the story. By the same token, I keep hearing over and over that we need to have a conversation about race in this country. What [some] people are really saying is that we need to have the conversation about race that I want to have and I don’t want to hear other points of view. And I think that is going to happen—there are people that are just not going to want to watch or support this movie.
SH: Who should not see this movie?
MB: Anybody that thinks they know exactly how everybody feels about race and knows exactly how all black people think and how all white people think—
SH: —which is not possible—
MB: —which is most liberal writers and a lot of far right opinion-makers. I think that people—we’ll come to a time when people won’t see anyone [exclusively] as a part of monolithic groups.
SH: To paraphrase what Martin Luther King once said, when people judge an individual by the content of his character?
MB: Absolutely. I think that’s how most people see the world—I truly do. [Pauses] Maybe there’s an older generation that needs to die off that only sees people by skin color. But I think most intelligent people in this country—and I think there are a lot more of them than are acknowledged—judge people by the content of their character. That’s what this movie’s about—how we move forward and what’s the future. I wanted to make a forward-thinking movie.
SH: Racism plays a pivotal and redemptive role in your first picture Indian Summer and your pictures often have a twist that indicates the fact that coming together means pulling things apart. Do you see your movies as social commentary?
MB: No. It’s just something I felt about life. That was just a thread. It’s there to show that Uncle Lou [Alan Arkin’s character] was a flawed guy. We put people on pedestals. We need to remember that they make mistakes, too. But I’m already thinking of my next movie, ‘1958’, and now I’m wondering whether that theme you asked about is in there, too. It’s probably about the loss of innocence and how our behavior affects us and moving past bad behavior. It’s about a young married woman and her husband in 1958. She’s having an affair in a small town and she basically brings on a rash of drama as a result—and it’s a comedy. I do think there’s something in there about America’s loss of innocence.
SH: You use dry, ironic humor to lull the audience into laughing at the alcoholic in a way that lets the audience discover that life is serious, not funny.
MB: I hate seeing a drama with no laughs. You get so much more done with humor. I’m trying to learn to balance it. Sometimes, I think I’m [writing] melodrama. My films are not comedies, they’re not dramas, they’re not dramedies. The movie Giant wouldn’t be made today. All About Eve had comedy and drama. Hopefully, in the long run, I’ll know what my movies are.
Former Box Office Mojo editor and partner Scott Holleran writes scripts and teaches media and storytelling workshops and courses in LA. He posts movie reviews on his blog, where he writes about news, culture, and ideas.