“Black or White”: Kevin Costner Almost Made Me Cry

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.




Time to bring Danny Ferry in from the cold

Former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young is right. Suspended Atlanta Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry has been punished enough — more than enough. He should immediately be freed from the doghouse and allowed back into the office from which he made the key deals, player personnel moves and other decisions that have transformed the Hawks from a team that won only 38 games last season, to one that now stands atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference, ahead of  the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, teams early prognosticators said would leave the Hawks in their dust.

But Lebron James’ Cavaliers and Derrick Rose’s Bulls , so far, have barely looked like they belong on the same floor with the Hawks. At the All-Star break, Atlanta was sitting at 43 wins against just 11 losses, and with more than a quarter of the regular  season left to play. That’s five more wins than during the entire regular season last year. No matter what happens the rest of the way, this Hawks team has had a remarkable run already, one that has made Atlanta’s fickle  — and sometimes fair-weather fans — take notice. And with the flops of both the Braves and the Falcons earlier, the team that nobody  thought  would set such a blistering pace — perhaps except for Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer — has bolstered this city’s sense of pride and given many who were ready to give up on professional sports here a reason to cheer with renewed  gusto.

And that feels good!

Ferry’s offense?  The ostracized general manager has been on an indefinite leave of absence, I believe without pay, since it was revealed that he made derogatory and racially insensitive comments about then-free agent player Luol Deng, who is African, during a conference  call with Hawks ownership and management last June. That revelation set off an investigation by the team that dredged up even more incendiary remarks by controlling owner Bruce Levenson that cast aspersions on the team’s fans and criticized game operations, including the choice of music and promotions used to boost attendance. Shortly thereafter, Levenson announced that he would sell his interest in the team. The announcement of Ferry’s leave quickly followed Levenson’s news. And it was reported last month that all members of the Hawks ownership group — that collectively had been known as the Atlanta Spirit — had agreed to sell their shares in the team and Phillips Arena. That process is said to be ongoing.

Andy Young, known for his reconciliation skills during his years in the civil rights movement and beyond, recently told a local television station — according to a report in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution — that if he were running the Hawks, Ferry would have never been isolated from the team and left unable to fully enjoy the success his management acumen had produced. When asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell, no.” He went on to say, “We’ve got a good team, we’ve got a good general manager. We just need to get a unified ownership, and I hope that ownership is grounded in Atlanta.”

According to the AJC, Young said he was speaking out at the urging of friends who believe Ferry is “getting a bad deal.” He is right. Ferry’s punishment has not fit the crime. I have followed Danny Ferry’s career since his time as a player at Duke, and there is nothing in me that tells me he is a racist. He made some unfortunate comments, which should have been handled differently. You don’t punish stupid remarks with the guillotiine. A hefty fine and a short suspension would have been sufficient.

Hawks management, however, has indicated it will likely wait until the team has a new owner and let that person or group make the decision about Ferry, as if that is the fair and proper thing to do. It is not. It is the cowardly thing to do. Don’t let a man who has been hung out to dry in a move that was overkill to begin with go on twisting in the wind indefinitely. Value what he has brought to the organization. He deserves better.