Conversation Starter

Writer-director Mike Binder hopes his new custody battle film Black or White spurs discussions about race


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Screenwriter, actor, director, comedian, and metro Detroit native Mike Binder has been a movie-industry fixture for more than 20 years. 

His latest film, Black or White, opens next month and stars Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer as grandparents battling for custody of their biracial granddaughter.

Binder’s career has long been tied to the Mitten State. He was the first headliner for Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in 1979; his 1992 directorial debut, Crossing the Bridge, told a story about three Detroit friends smuggling drugs into Canada via the Ambassador Bridge. 

Today Binder, 56, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Diane. He makes frequent trips to Michigan, often to shore up support of the state’s tax breaks for the movie industry. He spoke recently with Hour Detroit about Black or White, its inspiration in his own family history, and his love of Michigan.

Where did you get the idea for this film?

Years ago, when I was first married to Diane, her sister had a little boy, a 7-year-old biracial son whose father wasn’t in his life. … My wife’s sister was raising him as a single mother but had a really good relationship with his [father’s] family down South. But then her sister had a bad blood transfusion and died of AIDS. … So my wife and I and his family all raised him together. He lived in two completely different worlds. But they were such a good family and loved him so much and we loved him so much. I thought it would make a really good story about race. It was a movie I always wanted to write.

You directed Kevin Costner several years ago in The Upside of Anger. What was it like working together again? 

We’ve been friends over the years. … I’d sent him three or four scripts and he passed on all of them, which is fine. If a script doesn’t speak to an actor, I don’t want him to do it. But this was different. He totally took to this and said, “I want to make it with you, produce it with you, help raise the money.” He put up some of his own money. He was a very involved and committed producer. 

How does the film fit into the particular moment we’re having around race relations in this country?

The first thing [Kevin and I] agreed on was we wanted to do a very chewy conversation about race in the context of this custody battle. I wanted to take it away from the headlines and police and news stories and shootings and just bring it down into two families, how the racial divide and barrier affects and doesn’t affect them. Really bring it down to a sidewalk level. We both said this movie could be a really good conversation starter to talk about race, which is a really tough subject to talk about. 

Is there any experience that stands out about making the film?  

I was really happy with the relationship between Kevin and the little girl, Jillian Estell. We searched all across North America; my casting director saw maybe 2,000 kids. The chemistry [Jillian] was able to build between herself and Kevin was so incredible. I think they really fell for each other. 

How do you make a commercially viable film that grapples with race authentically?

I just come at it from a humanistic perspective, and I’m trying to tell a story. I wanted to be evenhanded. Sometimes when you’re watching the movie you think, this little girl belongs with Kevin, and then you think, no, this little girl belongs with Octavia. You go back and forth. The character of the girl’s father is a really weak character, he’s on drugs, and a lot of people gave me a hard time about that. I understand there’s a positive agenda to change these stereotypes we see. But to tell the story I told, I couldn’t just make everybody good people. The rest of the family is incredibly centered and grounded. … We tested [the movie] extensively to white audiences, black audiences, audiences with both. And everyone loved it. It just shows me that people are very similar.  

You’ve stayed connected to Michigan. As someone who sees the city from a distance as well as up close, do you see Detroit making a comeback?

I feel like as low as things have gotten, they’re only going to go up. There’s something really special in the American zeitgeist about Detroit, not only in terms of what it was, but where it is now and where it needs to be. I wear my Tigers hat really proudly out here in L.A. I love to go back, and I’ve been very involved in bringing filmmaking back to Michigan. I think it’s really important to keep that going.  

What do you miss most about Detroit?

I miss the change of seasons, believe it or not. … I like the ease of getting around Detroit. I only drive American cars; I definitely feel like a Michigander.

Ben Affleck was affected by his visit to local auto factories and said he was trading in his foreign cars and buying American.

[Laughs.] Ben’s a good friend of mine, and I’ve taken a lot of ribbing over the years from him for only driving Cadillacs. I’m going to have a lot of fun giving it back to him.

 

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