Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

The Struggles And Subversions Of An Invisible Man

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the title character in "Lee Daniels' The Butler".  The Weinstein Company


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lee Daniels has cultivated something special with "The Butler", the drama written by Danny Strong adapted from a Washington Post story on Eugene Allen, a butler who served under eight different U.S. presidents at The White House.  Absorbing and powerful, "The Butler" defines the pathways to a better America in the shape of the challenges of a father and son.

Forest Whitaker is Cecil Gaines, an African-American who endures the murder of his father at the hands of a white man on the cotton fields of a plantation in 1920s Macon, Georgia.  Cecil is born into slavery and racism, called a "n----r" so many times he probably thought it was his name.  Brought into the slave house as "compensation" for his father's death by plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) young Cecil is taught to serve the whites of the house.  This turning point for Cecil leads to a serving job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, raising his and his family's economic station. 

Cecil's individual triumph is immediate, but what of blacks at large?  Mr. Daniels' film exposes the myth (and dilemma) alive in some quarters of America today -- that because one black person is highly successful (Oprah, Obama) or have "made it" the group has as a whole, and the racial climate in the country is far better because of it.

"The Butler" opens with a horrific image of America's very recent past, underscored by a quote from Dr. King.  It ends with light that drives out the darkness the late human rights leader once spoke of.  Mr. Daniels' film is a travelogue of the ongoing and historical black experience in America, where to survive and thrive blacks have to forge dual identities: one with blacks and another with whites.  It's a duality that has been a survival mechanism ever since blacks were forcibly taken from the African continent and thrown into the hulls of slave ships. 

Cecil's experience is no different.

As Cecil -- a dutiful, respectful and non-threatening black man -- elevates his status serving presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan his confrontational son Louis (David Oyelowo) fights to overhaul the racial injustices American society inflicts upon blacks.  The parallels are effective, akin to and symbolic of the dynamic between Dr. King and Malcolm X: Cecil has a front-row seat to the ugly racist banter among whites as he serves them and appeals to non-violent restraint.  Louis meanwhile speaks truth to power and to his parents, including alcoholic mother Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), whom he declares is "the best mother a son could have."  (As a real-life parallel of afflictions Malcolm X's mother was confined to a mental home in the latter stages of her life.)

Mr. Daniels' film, one that marks his finest hour as a director, spotlights a coming-of-age journey for Cecil and Louis, and by extension America.  Throughout "The Butler" commonality and complexity unite blacks and whites.  The violence of the volatile times in the 1950s and 60s also unites them.  A flier Louis has contains a photo of the brutalized face of Emmitt Till, a face exposed at his mother Mamie Till's demand.  Hours after JFK is assassinated we see Jackie Kennedy still in her blood-splattered outfit.  (In the film Ms. Kennedy says, "I want the world to know what they did to my husband", words similar to Ms. Till's in 1956.) 

These profound gestures by women in American history are in their own way bold, heroic cries for justice and appeals to conscience.  "The Butler" references the four little girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, a key moment in the civil rights movement and its eventual drawing of the lines for many white Americans.  Gloria herself is a heroic figure, a troubled woman who tries to keep a divided house together within the realms of a larger metaphorical divided house that is America.  "The Butler" shows that in the road to justice and a better America overall a tricky, treacherous path must be trodden.

My only wish for the often oblivious-to-history iPhone generation was that Mr. Daniels had displayed a photo of Trayvon Martin as a corollary and parallel to Mr. Till in reinforcing the truism that the battle for racial equality and justice for blacks in America continues despite the emergence of President Obama.  "The Butler" was filmed in mid-to-late 2012, months after Mr. Martin was shot dead in Florida in February last year. 

Cecil's and Louis' approaches to change and justice in America converge just as Dr. King's and Malcolm's did.  Louis's younger brother Charlie (Elijah Kelley) is the median voice of these two.  When Charlie goes off to fight for the U.S. in Vietnam he charges Louis with fighting against his country as a Black Panther.  Charlie, however, gets this wrong, for in reality both he and Louis are fighting for their country, fighting to make it better, as is Cecil, who, as one character points out, is a subversive figure.  The director makes the point well: that the quest for a better America on a social and political level is fought from the inside and outside of the system. 

It is Cecil who is the film's most powerful figure, the silent black man who observes, absorbs and strategizes.  He's not the spook who sits by the door; he's been invited to the inner circle.  He may or may not be plotting.  He's trusted.  He knows the game inside and out.  He plays it cool.  Yet Cecil's conscience bothers him, and despite his relatively comfortable position it is his son Louis who pushes him to do more in the service of change.  Cecil asks for an increase in pay for the "black help" at The White House, whom as he points out, are being paid significantly less than the "white help" (who are hardly glimpsed here.)  Louis is illustrative of the idea that each generation's journey to justice is different even as the objective is the same.  The tension between the differing ways to achieve the same objective is marvelously weaved into age-old tension between fathers and adolescent sons. 

"The Butler" pinpoints private and public struggles with race, racist behavior and name-calling, as both blacks and whites in the film are affected, and shows the contradictions amongst them.  Presidents Nixon, LBJ and Kennedy, who either openly used the word "n-----r" or were slow to address civil and human rights violations of blacks, are presented as comic relief caricatures, though the one serious depiction of a president is of Ronald Reagan, sincerely rendered by Alan Rickman, whose Reagan is perhaps the most complex president of all, especially in a scene about South Africa and apartheid.

Unlike montages of historic events that are often trivial filler in movies, the events of "The Butler" are vivid, meaningful and integral to its power, intensity and thought-provocation.  I'm not sure "The Butler" will spark more conversations about race.  I sincerely hope it helps to.  Mr. Daniels' film in and of itself is a conversation about race and racism.  As a film it couldn't be more timely, especially in a 2013 where its star Mr. Whitaker can be rudely accosted, humiliated and accused of stealing in a deli in "liberal" New York City, where Mr. Martin's killer is acquitted in Florida, where Ms. Winfrey can be refused a chance to buy a $38,000 bag overseas, where Mr. Obama can be mocked, insulted and made the butt of racist horseplay in the shape of a rodeo clown, and, on a more universal level, where a U.S. Supreme Court votes to eliminate section four of the very same 1965 Voting Rights Act that LBJ signed into law.

In a sad way "The Butler" represents the idea that the more things change the more they stay the same.  There's even debate about use of the word "n----r" among some black characters.  Mr. Daniels shows that Cecil's experience is one that blacks can relate to, and poor people can relate to, of being an outsider in a rich man's society. 

The film is well cast, calibrated with richness, depth, emotion.  Jane Fonda, no stranger to controversy in Vietnam, cheekily plays Nancy Reagan in an amusing send-up.  "The Butler" is a confident, enriching journey of a man's well-worn life.  Some of its most moving moments come in voice-overs of Cecil engaging in the bizarre, psychologically tragic practice of having to "know what they want and see what they see", when referring to serving white guests.  The film digs deep at the gravity, loneliness and solemnity of Cecil's very existence, particularly when at The White House.  Mr. Daniels directs these passages well and Mr. Whitaker, who produced this year's "Fruitvale Station", another topical film, is fantastic over all.

Mr. Daniels' usual peccadilloes are on display -- references to urination and other things scatological -- but in "The Butler" there's a restraint and focus he possesses that makes such references blend into the narrative rather than stop it in its tracks or shock, unlike last year's "The Paperboy".  Here Mr. Daniels appropriately leaves any shock factor to serious imagery, including of a white Freedom Rider activist who says he can't utter that unholy word used to denigrate blacks but under pressure does so relatively easily.

This intense scene isn't a cheap moment.  The scene isn't watered down or excused by the usually lazy cinematic device of alcohol -- one of the most dishonest devices used in film as a justification of ill intent, will or behavior.  The film's white liberal male's "n----r" utterance is one that forces viewers -- white viewers, and more pointedly white liberal viewers -- to examine their racial attitudes and feelings towards blacks.

Blacks in "The Butler" unabashedly opine about blacks as much as they do whites.  In one of the film's few redundancies a dinner table scene evoking "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" (except with Louis and a black woman) has Louis assailing Sidney Poitier as a tool of white appropriation, service and comfort.  Gloria then mentions Stanley Kramer's film, as if viewers needed the reminder.  In the 1960s Mr. Poitier was more or less embraced by white audiences at a time when some blacks expressed skepticism about him, and his genuineness as a black man on a white stage called Hollywood, even as he took positive roles.  This conversation within the black community is ongoing, whether it centers on filmmaker Tyler Perry, or Cuba Gooding (one of this film's stars) for his onstage Oscar jig in 1997 or Ving Rhames and his giving his Golden Globe award to Jack Lemmon several years ago.

The "genuineness" examination is applied to Cecil.  Cecil, the kind of invisible man Ralph Ellison once wrote about, is admired by White House officials.  Whites respect him, including the slave-owning matriarch.  Cecil spends more than 30 years serving.  Cecil gets little respect from Louis and thus a lack of acceptance.  Whites are clearly more accepting of Cecil than even his own son is.  As I thought of Cecil's "genuineness" as a black man as viewed by other blacks in "The Butler" I also thought of President Obama and some whites who constantly question his "genuineness" as an American.

As graceful as it is rugged, "The Butler" shows the artistry of Cecil at work  - the methodical, chess-like approach to preparing a dinner table for a special White House occasion.  It is pure tactic and strategy, even battle plan.  In an R-rated edition of this film one might envision such scenes punctuated by Cecil literally sticking a fork in one of the nattily-attired white guests he serves a steak to.  Everything leads to imagining that type of horror, and it is in Mr. Daniels' power of suggestion in the most innocent and subtle of images and explicit, jarring ones that "The Butler" stirs, elevating its incisiveness as a movie experience.  "Chameleon Street", Wendell B. Harris's acerbic film about a true story of a black man who assumed multiple roles as a fake lawyer, banker and surgeon among many other people, is the same type of film in this regard.  The point is, you are often on edge while watching "The Butler".  And you are inspired.  You laugh.  You cry, and a piece of you dies inside.

It's easy to think of Cecil, a smart, clever man as a Steppin' Fetchit type but Mr. Fetchit too was a very smart figure who in his day served whites as comforter and an entertainer, as did Hattie McDaniel ("it's better to play a maid than to be a maid") and early 20th century minstrel show star Bert Williams.  These and many others were indeed subversives.  They were smarter than they let on.  They knew what their role was and what they were doing.  They were skilled.  Cecil is depicted by Mr. Daniels in the very same way.  If he practiced any subversion today Cecil would have been the man who turned on a video camera to surreptitiously record Mitt Romney last year to a rich clientele talking about Americans in a disparaging way.

"The Butler" is a necessary, instructive experience, one bound for Oscar contention next January.

Also with: Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, Clarence Williams III, Yaya Alafia, Nelsan Ellis, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Mariah Carey, Liev Schreiber, Colman Domingo, Aml Ameen, Jesse Williams, Alex Pettyfer.

"The Butler", which opened yesterday across North America, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.  The film's running time is two hours and 12 minutes.  

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