"Mildly interesting, but as nondescript as its title."
Australian import Black and White deals with galvanizing issues of racism, capital punishment and the inadequacy of legal justice, yet this courtroom docudrama differentiates itself by having absolutely nothing to say on any of these subjects.Based on the true story of an infamous 1958 murder trial, Robert Carlisle stars as a well-meaning but unexceptional lawyer assigned to defend Max Stuart, a 27-year-old hard-drinking aboriginal carnival worker accused of raping a 9-year-old white girl in a small South Australia town.
The subsequent media explosion (led by a young newspaper publisher named Rupert Murdoch) helped lead to the abolition of the death penalty Down Under and caused a public furor over Australia’s antiquated system of justice. But despite the long-lasting ramifications of the Stuart murder trial director Craig Lahiff shows no interest in exploring the themes of racial inequity or legal bureaucracy.
On one hand, that refusal to commit to any broader social or ethical themes prevents the movie from becoming a piece of self-righteous, liberal-leaning preachiness.
On the flip side, that lack of emotional involvement prevents Black and White from creating a lasting impression, relegating it to the equivalent of a well-staged Aussie version of some stateside true crime drama in the vein of a Law & Order.
The story begins much like your average Hollywood courtroom thriller, not much different than a bloated legal potboiler a la’ Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, but Black and White finds itself as it shifts toward shades of gray.
That shift extends to the case’s prosecuting attorney played by British actor Charles Dance, who crafts his character into a principled man undone by arrogance instead of the thinly-veiled villain blinded by bigotry the role could’ve easily been reduced to.
Director Lahiff leans toward Stuart’s innocence, but refuses to paint him as a martyr. Stuart claims his confession, the lone piece of inflammatory evidence, was beaten out of him by police. The all-white police force claims it was yielded without duress.Black and White never supposes the truth, but despite that effective ambiguity this relic of Australian history is never as engrossing or powerful as it should be.