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Life initiates art for Mike Binder in "Black Or White" film
BIRMINGHAM -- Mike Binder has never been shy about tapping his personal life and experiences for his work, whether in his stand-up comedy or film scripts.
But his provocative new "Black or White," which opens Friday, Jan. 30, is a far cry from the warm summer camp memories he revisited for something like 1993's "Indian Summer."
"Black or White," which Birmingham-raised Binder also wrote and co-produced, stars Kevin Costner as attorney Elliot Anderson left to care for his bi-racial granddaughter Eloise (played by newcomer Jillian Estell) after his wife suddenly dies. He winds up in a custody battle with the paternal grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer, that encompasses attitudes about both race and class relations in contemporary America.
"It's a story I always wanted to tell," says Binder, 56, sitting in a suite at Birmingham's Townsend Hotel, just a few miles from Seaholm High School, his alma mater, and next to Anthony Mackie, who plays Eloise's great-uncle Jeremiah, an attorney who leads the case against Costner's character.
"Race is a minefield in this country," Binder continues. "Any time you do anything with race, you're asking to be slapped around and put under a microscope and criticized. People always talk about race; they just don't want to talk about it honestly.
"That said, I thought it was a story worth telling.
It's also Binder's story, to a degree. Binder and his wife, Diane, who live in Santa Monica, helped raise their bi-racial nephew after her sister passed away when the boy was seven years old (he's now 34), sharing the duties with another brother as well as the boy's father's family in South Central Los Angeles.
"Everybody came together as one, big, combined family," recalls Binder, whose other credits include "Crossing the Bridge," "Reign Over Me" and "Fourplay" and acting in "Minority Report" and "The Contender." "There were a lot of differences, of course, but the common goal and bond was that we loved him and wanted him to have the best life possible. And we did that, together. I'd go down to South Central. It wasn't the same neighborhood, but I was never afraid.
"Eventually I thought, 'There's something here...,' and a couple of years ago I said, 'I'm gonna write it.' "
Mackie -- who played Eminem's nenmesis Papa Doc in 2002's "8 Mile" and also has family from Pontiac (and, Binder notes, wore a Detroit Tigers hat to the first day of shooting for "Black or White" in New Orleans) -- says one key line in the script hooked him into the project. "There's one part where (Costner's character) says, 'It's not your first thought that makes you racist. It's the second, third or fourth.' As soon as I saw that, I closed the script. I was in.
"I just appreciated the way (Binder) approached race in this. We're at a place with race in this country where...it's getting better, but the only way to deal with ignorance and bigotry is to confront it like this."
Getting Costner involved not only as the lead actor but also as a co-producer -- who put up $9 million of his own money when studios proved skittish about funding the film -- was a triumph for Binder as well. The two worked together on "The Upside of Anger" in 2005, and Binder had been sending Costner scripts ever since -- all of which Costner describes as "near misses." "Black or White" was one that clicked with the actor, however.
"I was taken with the first page of the script," Costner said via a statement. "Mike's writing was very precise...It was clear to me that the movie wasn't going to be made, ad it wasn't going to be made because its value was being questioned overseas. That irritated me because I feel this movie is very commercial. I feel it represents all the ideas that we love about cinema and touches those notes beautifully."
"Black or White" does, of course, come at a time when race is near the top of the public consciousness again in the wake of police incidents in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., alongside the release of the Martin Luther King, Jr., film "Selma." Binder says the timing is coincidental; "Black or White," which premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, was wrapped and locked for release before any of those occurred, but he's happy to have the film become part of "the conversation."
"Nobody makes a film called 'Black or White' and says, 'I wish it would just be judged on its artistic merit,' " says Binder, whose next project, "1958," is a nostalgic film set in "a small Michigan town...like Monroe." "This is not just a little release; the movie tested so well that Relativity (Media, which picked it up for distribution) is really putting it out there and putting a lot behind it.
"So hopefully we can get some people thinking and talking. We needed to be talking about race in this country and teach our kids how to deal with people who's skin is a different color than theirs -- and realize that they're no different except for that little piece of skin."
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