Monday, September 9, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler Movie Review

It’s not so much that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a bad movie, but that it’s completely toothless. Here’s a movie made by a black filmmaker whose audacious breakout was Precious, a film that doesn’t dare shy away from the hard circumstances of being black in America, specifically of being black and desperately poor in America. The brunt of the problem with the story is in Danny Strong’s screenplay, which drew on a Washington Post article about a black man who worked in the White House as a butler through eight Presidential administrations for inspiration. Still, Daniels chose the material to direct. And I’m not insisting that a black filmmaker must be consigned to telling black stories or that when he does, they always have to be gritty, but it seems to me there is some moral imperative to battle and to make audiences feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, The Butler is so intent on being a moneymaker for the studio that it compromises pretty much all of its values so it can appealing to a mass audience.

To read the original article about this butler, a black man who worked in close quarters with every president from Truman to Reagan, you have to realize immediately that here is a man who would have heard conversations and debates being held at the highest level. Through the 50s and 60s many of those overheard discussions might have centered on the civil rights movement and how extraordinary it would be to get this man’s story, to find out what he heard and how he was part of it and what he thought. The Butler is a heavily fictionalized version of the real man’s life. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a black man born on the cotton fields of Georgia whose father is murdered in cold blood by the white plantation owner in plain sight of several field hand witnesses, including the boy. The kindly matriarch played by Vanessa Redgrave promptly whisks the boy indoors to be trained as a house servant. Later as a young man he works his way through high society of Washington, D.C., until he’s spotted as a possible addition to the White House staff and there he stays for the next 30 years.

His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is a strong and resilient woman, the kind of tough and big-hearted woman who wants the best for her sons and a good man to raise them right. Cecil’s entire character is established when he’s trained as a hotel butler and is told never to listen to conversation or give any indication that you’ve heard it. The final piece of his character, added when he begins work for President Eisenhower, is that he doesn’t discuss the job with anyone. This is the entirety of Cecil Gaines. We learn little else about him, except that he wants his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), to go to college and keep his neck out of trouble. We understand that Cecil is especially good at his job when he and Gloria go to the house of another butler (Lenny Kravitz) and learn that he discusses things with his wife. So there you have it: Cecil is the best at what he does.

It feels almost like an aside or a distraction to even mention the rampant stunt casting in the film, but then again, the use of certain actors in key historical roles is itself a distraction, providing little more to the experience of seeing the film than the opportunity to point out, “Hey, there’s Robin Williams as President Eisenhower!” Robin Williams, you say? That’s right, he’s fitted with a wig cap, glasses, and facial prosthetics to somewhat resemble Ike. Then John Cusack shows up as Richard Nixon, getting the flabby rumblings of his throaty voice down pretty well. Next up is James Marsden, whose face is beautiful enough not to require touching up to play JFK, the one president in the movie portrayed as a sincere Golden Boy – a man so deeply hurt by the racial tensions in the country. Live Schreiber does no favors for Johnson, reducing the poor man to a loudmouth Texan. Daniels stoops to including a scene of the man on the toilet, desperately trying to work through constipation while Cecil stands by awaiting a call for more prune juice. Really? Could he not afford a now deceased former President of the United States slightly more dignity? Finally, Alan Rickman turns up as Reagan with Jane Fonda (probably the only decent casting job on this list) as his wife, Nancy. These casting choices are all as bad as they sound. The film would have been far better served by casting little-known actors or even by keeping them obscured enough that we knew who the on screen characters were, but not necessarily the men pulling the strings. Another way you might look at it is that Daniels made a decision to fill key black roles with respected actors who can sink into their parts (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard and Clarence Williams III fill out a few key characters in Cecil’s life), but the famous faces – white faces – are reduced to caricature by unsuitable, though no less respected, actors.

Daniels also tones down his flair for unique visual storytelling. The scheme here, from the costumes and art direction to the cinematography and editing is utterly and boringly conventional. He manages one very good scene that has Louis and his college protest organization daring to sit in the white section of a lunch counter. Daniels intercuts the insults and abuse heaped upon them with a scene of the same group of protesters preparing in their underground meeting. It’s a dynamic, mesmerizing, and emotionally moving sequence that unfortunately turns out to be a taste of what might have been if Daniels had had more freedom, which I sense he didn’t very much of.

While Cecil bears witness to a sea change with things like the desegregation of schools or the passing of the Civil Rights Act under the Johnson administration, should we expect any inkling of how Cecil feels about these things or his reaction to the way the white men he works under talk around and above the issue as they peer down from on high? That would be a much different movie that what Strong and Daniels have given us. Cecil is like the black Forrest Gump, wandering aimlessly as an accidental witness to history, striding blithely and ignorantly through momentous events without comment or action. Don’t be fooled by the film’s attempt at explaining away the role of a black butler as expressed through the mouthpiece of Dr. Martin Luther King when he tells Louis that the black domestic is in actuality a subversive role because without trying, it demonstrates to white people that black people can be hardworking and trustworthy, so without any protest or demonstration, the black domestic has the power to change opinions.

 What exactly is interesting about this? The truth is that any art that makes such drastic compromises for the good of pleasing everyone can’t possibly be great. This is the palatable option. It’s just enough of a unique black story to hold the black audience’s attention, but not quite subversive enough to alienate most white audiences. If you’re not making anyone angry with your art, then you’ve sort of missed the point. There was great opportunity in this story to present a man with conviction, a man who has something to say about these great changes in the course of American history. I keep coming back to remarks made by Louis to his parents when they refer to their affection for Sydney Poitier: “[He’s] a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” Sounds an awful lot like The Butler to me.

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