Monday, September 30, 2013

Thank God There's More to "Lee Daniels' The Butler" Than Watching the Title Character at Work!

Calling a movie Lee Daniels' The Butler and then not showing said butler at work would be a lot like calling a movie Lee Daniels' The Butler when it was directed by Quentin Tarantino. That's the other director whose name kept popping into my head while I was watching Lee Daniels' The Butler (thusly titled for legal reasons, not primarily for reasons related to directorial ego, though I have a feeling the latter is as big as Oprah Winfrey's hair in the movie) because Lee Daniels' The Butler is the sort of inspirational, feel-bad-and-then-feel-good movie that Tarantino would never make.

In fact, early in the film when one black character objects to another black character calling himself a "house nigger" by slapping him and admonishing him for his self-description ("Don't you ever use that word, son. It's white man's word, filled with hate. Didn't your father ever teach you any better?"), it almost feels like a smack from one screenwriter (Danny Strong) to another (Tarantino) over Tarantino's alleged overuse of the N word in last year's Django Unchained. I say "alleged" because hard as it may have been to hear the N word so frequently in Django, I have no doubt that it was probably uttered even more frequently on slave plantations in the Deep South in the late 1850s than Tarantino would have us believe.

In black history according to director Lee Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, for which the filmmaker with a penchant for awkward movie titles became only the second black Best Director Oscar nominee), Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th U.S. President and a strong supporter of black civil rights during his term of office, gets to utter it more frequently than any other character. Therein lies my biggest problem with The Butler -- not Johnson and the N word, mind you, but Johnson's presence (via Liev Schreiber, who totally looks the part) in the move to begin with.

Ironically, for a movie called Lee Daniels' The Butler about a butler, I found the on-the-job sequences to be the film's weakest links. There's no doubt in my mind that there's an excellent movie based on the behind-the-scenes White House shenanigans in Eugene Allen's account of his decades as a Presidential servant (the subject of the Washington Post article on which The Butler is based), but I'm not so sure that a movie that seems to be more interested in the simultaneous Civil Rights Movement is the best place to tell that story.

The five Presidents depicted in the film are too sketchily drawn -- and, ironically, it's the Democratic ones, especially that "nigger"-spewing Johnson, who come out looking the worst -- and their presence feels more like a marketing ploy ("And here's Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan!") than crucial to the story, especially since the famous actors portraying the former U.S. Commanders-in-Chief aren't given much to do. I think the movie would have been better served had it taken the Veep approach and left the Presidents unseen, except in archival footage, as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are shown. (Fun fact: Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, as the mother of a vicious plantation owner, are in the same film for the first time since 1977's Julia, though at opposite ends of it.)

Speaking of famous actors, I'm glad Daniels cast Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, the wife of the titular character Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), instead of someone like Viola Davis, who would have sucked all the fun out of the role. Winfrey makes Gloria more than just the devoted wife. It's a fully realized character (in some ways, more so than Cecil himself), and Winfrey handles her delicately, never smashing us over the head with Gloria's ticks. It wasn't until well into the film that it dawned on me that she was an alcoholic! Winfrey's second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination is as guaranteed as Mo'Nique's win in the same category for Precious was four years ago.

Thanks, in part, to Winfrey's commanding presence in it, Lee Daniels' The Butler is most successful as a family drama (sort of like Precious) with the Civil Rights Movement as its backdrop. I wish it had focused on the butler's off-the-clock life without shoehorning in the Presidential elements like a history lesson presented by Cliff Notes. The lecture on the Civil Rights Movement from the black point of view is far more thorough and engaging than the overly simplified presentation of how the various U.S. Presidents reacted to it.

Yes, Daniels teaches with a sledgehammer instead of a ruler, but the white-on-black atrocities of the 1960s are not begging for a light, subtle touch. My main gripe here is that the film's suggestion that the Civil Rights Movement evolved from a non-violent one into a militant one mainly because of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is too easy. That said, the scene of the Freedom Riders' sit-in inside a Tennessee diner is fantastically filmed and nicely juxtaposed with the White House dinner scene, and the terror of the passengers on the bus in Alabama as it's torched by the KKK is palpable, making it one of the film's most effective and maddening moments.

My outrage while watching it felt like an organic response to a recreation that's presented with the journalistic authority and matter-of-fact (and public record) realism of a documentarian, unlike the manipulative opening flashback, which seems to exist solely to immediately rile up viewers, just in case they don't realize that the horrors of black life in the post-Reconstruction South weren't so much different from the horrors of black life before the Civil War. (Apparently, none of what transpires onscreen actually happened to Eugene Allen or his father and mother, who is briefly portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey, looking even better with no make-up than she did in Precious.) The 1926-set scene, which wouldn't have seemed out of place on one of Django Unchained's 1850s plantations, is hardly crucial to the story of a boy who didn't grow up to hate white people.

Had that opening flashback actually happened to Eugene Allen, I would have expected him to end up more like Cecil's older son Louis, a Freedom Riding Black Panther, or like Django, than the servile "house negro" that Cecil turns out to be, one who has a front-row seat to racist attitudes and agendas, but lower pay than white servants aside, doesn't really seem to suffer too greatly from the injustices of racism after the opening incident. He's got a steady job, a nice home, and most importantly, immaculate duds.

I understand that the purpose of making Cecil such a passive character was to contrast his docile approach to black-white relations with his son's far more incendiary point of view, and I like that the movie challenges him on it, while resisting the urge to portray butlerhood as some noble calling. It's just a job. Instead The Butler holds the work ethic displayed by these domestic servants in particularly high regard and suggests that this strong work ethic itself was a form of Civil Rights activism.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not really buying into it, especially since there are other ways for hard-working folks to express their work ethic that don't involve pampering over-privileged people and counting the number of shoes in Jackie Kennedy's closet. Ultimately, neither does Cecil, since his actions late in the film undermine that idea that he has done anything for which he should be proud. Clearly Cecil wishes he had fought harder on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement.

Near the end, when Cecil, in voice over, decries the American way of condemning human-rights abuse around the world, from the Holocaust to Vietnam to Apartheid, while ignoring the 200-year legacy of it at home, I nodded my head in agreement. So true. But did Cecil really have to spend so much time at work onscreen to figure that out?
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