Monday, September 2, 2013

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Greater than the sum of its parts, 
the importance surges

     The number one movie for the past couple of weeks has been Lee Daniels’ The Butler and that gives me hope a studio movie can be political and popular.  However, much of that financial success is probably due to The Oprah Effect.  We’ve missed her for the past couple of years, even though she
recently has conducted some high profile interviews on her channel OWN.  Lindsey Lohan wised up after Oprah offered her some needed advice and Tina Turner spoke the truth that performing is a job and there’s a time to step away from the stage – oh, if only Sinatra, Aretha and, heretic that I am, Barbra and Cher would listen.  

The Kennedys Greet Their Staff
     This movie takes off from an article about a retired White House steward who served from the ‘40s through the ‘80s and was attending President Obama’s inauguration.  Much has been made of the fact that it doesn’t follow the details of that butler’s life.  Well, so what?  It’s based on history; it’s not a biography.  It uses that situation as a crux to tell of political power as rich, white people exercised it and compare it to how middle class, black people had to initially endure it, then consider it, and employ methods to find their own voice in dealing with it, a.k.a. American race relations and cultural politics.  When was the last time an American movie dealt with that on an epic scope or even showed a complex, black middle class family?  (To Sleep with Anger (1990), Crooklyn (1994), Get on the Bus (1996) or 1997’s Soul Food?)  

     Conservative critics are ticked off by President Reagan’s portrayal.  Really?  He’s not portrayed as prejudiced; he’s actually nice.  That’s what we responded to so overwhelmingly back then – he was an ideal Grandpa tellin’ them nasty Russkies ‘NO’ and meaning it.  He was lost on apartheid not because of racism, but because of geopolitics, namely, the Russkies gettin’ another foothold.  That is not explicated in the movie, which is a debit, but it’s minor.  What frightened Neil and me was that President Reagan (Alan Rickman) seemed so empty and uncertain of a response.
Jane as Nancy
Nancy Reagan, as portrayed smartly by Jane Fonda, comes across as engaged, astute, and yes, in her walk away from the butler, hot.  

     The parade of other actors as White House residents comes across like a respected community theatre putting on a very special pageant.  Minka Kelly moves and looks very close to Jacqueline Kennedy, though I don’t remember her speaking.  John Cusack’s fake nose registered as Richard Nixon, though he didn’t look or sound like that vice-president, later president, and he comes across as poignantly and then sadly creepy.  I don’t hear any critics shouting about that portrayal, and I could write an essay of assumptions about why, but won’t.  Robin Williams is hopeless as President Eisenhower; couldn’t they find any other white middle-aged guy in Hollywood that actually can act?  Bruce Willis would have been plausible, plus it would have released him from those action movies for a little while.  James Marsden, the best looking American actor that is not a star, looks like Bobby Kennedy, rather than John.  Part of the problem is that he’s not heavy enough in the shoulders and lacks gravitas.  Liev Schreiber captures President Johnson’s spunk, but he doesn’t try for that Texas accent.  Randy Quaid’s 1986 performance is still the gold standard LBJ.  Oh Randy, why did you run off the rails?

Forest Whitaker IS The Butler
     The greatest strengths of the movie are in the scenes of Cecil Gaines’ life, played subtly and arrestingly by Forest Whitaker.  He’s specific in showing how his body ages over the decades and in locating the tension between the face he has for black people at home and the other he has for white people at work.  The shock, panic, and rage he feels are revealed fleetingly, usually when someone white asks his opinion or in dealing with his elder son Louis, played by English actor David Oyelowo in what should be a star-making performance.  Oprah is never mentioned, yet what cultural touchstone did more to open up the dialogue of gender and ethnicity than that program?  Oprah Winfrey is Gloria,
Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines
Cecil’s wife, and the camaraderie and looseness she and Whitaker display together really makes them seem like a long-term married couple.  The aging make up on both of them looks natural.  She never seems like Oprah performing, but rather like an experienced, accomplished actress capturing a tortured character’s soul.  The one awkward note in her casting is that in its survey of 20th century history,

Whitaker with His Oldest Son Played by David Oyelowo
     Elijah Kelley as their younger son and Yaya DaCosta as Louis’s girlfriend/companion-in-arms represent the extremes that the black Baby Boomers displayed politically in either fighting in Vietnam or fighting the power at home.  The Butler moves from the Jim Crow South (slavery turned into almost permanent indentured service) to Yes We Can, but examines civil disobedience versus ‘by any means necessary’ versus the confrontation and communalism of The Black Panthers.  The movie gives each position its due, while showing its strengths and limitations.  For that alone, it should be required viewing in school.  Some of its irony can be heavy-handed such as the privileged glamour of the Kennedy White House as opposed to the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders.  Daniels shows guts in ending a goofy scene on a shocking note and tact in suggesting the developing relationship between Gloria and her fun loving neighbor (Terrence Howard), whose dead tooth should have given her pause.  Theatre vet Adriane Lenox is vinegary as Howard’s wife and Gloria’s friend.  It’s nice to see her cast in a worthwhile movie role.  

     The costumes and settings pretty much nail the era without being obvious.  It’s one of the best visual evocations of history since Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which looked like Gainsborough and Hogarth paintings come to life.  A Soul Train scene captures the early ‘70s visually and rhythmically.  The change in times is reflected in the ethnic make-up of their neighborhood in the ‘00s.  Yep, gentrification rears its head.

Lee Daniels
     I know that Warner Bros. pulled some crazy stunts about the title, which is the reason it’s called Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  The envy and enmity for the Weinsteins knows no bounds, but they’ve produced and distributed more worthwhile movies in the past twenty years than Warner’s.  Lee Daniels, however, deserves the recognition as Fellini did in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his name in the title.  It was great seeing Kathryn Bigelow win the Oscar three years ago, but a shame that Daniels was beat out.  A gay, black director – actually, a gay out director – was pretty historic as well.  He should be darn proud of the conversations The Butler will engender.

I Think I'd Like Having a Butler

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