The movie “Black or White” opened in limited release at the end of January, with Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer in the principal roles. I saw the trailers and the advertising push, and immediately thought that — while I was glad to see Costner out with another movie — it was not something I was dying to see. I believed I could already conjure in my mind the plot and what the director, Mike Binder, might be trying to sell. I assumed it would be mushy and stereotypical — another one of those heavy-handed attempts to show us that even crusty, old, white conservatives aren’t racists simply because they don’t like, and don’t want to be bothered with, black people. And they have a heart of gold, if you just dig deep enough. I wasn’t going to fall for the okey-doke.
But my wife and two friends said they really wanted to see it. I relented — and I am glad I did.
Here is the story line: A recently widowed and still grieving grandfather (Costner) suddenly finds himself having to raise his interracial granddaughter alone — no longer with the help of his beautiful and wise wife, who knew how to negotiate the difficult waters separating the two families who were a part of the little girl’s life. The girl’s paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who got along well with the wife of Costner’s character, but never with Costner’s character himself, decides to seek custody of the granddaughter. The little girl is torn, believing she will have to make a choice between two families. Both families determine to fight for what they think is right.
I was captured by the truths of this movie and transported to another place, a place deep inside myself. I forgot I was “at the movies,” and felt I was just watching real people live their tangled, often gut-wrenching lives in front of me. At the same time, the movie reel inside my head was showing feature films from my own life, back to the days of growing up in Jim Crow Atlanta, where my mother often took me with her to the fanciest department store in town (Rich’s), not because she wanted to, but because she needed me to help her buy the right-sized clothing. In those days, black people could spend their hard-earned money in Rich’s, but they couldn’t use the dressing rooms, so my mother would find a dress she liked, then hold it up against her body and ask me if it looked like it fit.
And there were the protests going on all over the South, the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joe Lowery, Andy Young , Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others putting their lives on the line for freedom and equality. And, yes, Lester Maddox, who, before he became Georgia’s governor, was famous for running black people out of his restaurant with an ax handle.
My mind also flashed to all the talk about there being a post-racial America after the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president. And then, other reels dredged up from my subconscious mind showed Trayvon Martin shot to death in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner choked to death in police custody in New York, and 19-year-old Renisha McBride shot to death on the porch of a suburban Detroit home where she had gone to seek help after an early-morning car accident.
It was the realities on the screens in the movie theater and in my head that made me cry.
Post-racial? There is nothing “post” about race relations in America these days. In many ways, it certainly appears that we have lost some valuable progress. Maybe because so many of us were thinking things were better, we slacked off in our vigiIance to keep fighting to move beyond the bad old days. But just from looking at the numbers of violent incidents between whites and people of color, and the skyrocketing rise in the purchasing of guns and ammunition in this country, we may actually be going backwards, not forward toward a mutually life-saving future.
The Costner movie reminded me just how difficult — and fraught with tensions — race relations can be. It is something that has to be taken up intentionally, daily and worked hard. As if our lives depend on how well we manage it. They do.
In my own life, I have seen how honestly working to overcome fears of differences and mistrust — and relying on the love that, deep down, you know should be there — can transform relationships. I have three beautiful “black” daughters and two of them are married to beautiful “white” men. It was difficult for me in the beginning, because I believed that I had failed, in some way, as a black man and as a father to my girls. I’d always heard that girls looked for men to marry who embodied the characteristics and traits they liked in their own fathers. I was crushed. But my daughters finally realized what was going on with me and told me that they did pick men who reminded them of me, and had qualities they saw in me. They were like me — only the skin color was different.
The transforming thing is, after that, I started seeing some of those qualities, too. And it didn’t take me long to grow to love those guys. They are not sons-in-law anymore, but sons — my boys.