Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lee Daniels | The Butler (Lee Daniels' The Butler)

what the butler didn’t see
by Douglas Messerli

Danny Strong (screenplay, based on Wil Haygood’s A Butler Well Served by This Election), Lee Daniels (director) The Butler (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) / 2013

I must begin by admitting that, after seeing the trailers and reading several pieces about Lee Daniels’ new film The Butler, I was reluctant to actually view and/or review this movie. I attempt not to be terribly influenced by the media before I myself write about it. But, I do read other reviews, and, in this case, with nearly every talk show raving about Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Gloria Gaines, the Butler, Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) wife, it was difficult not to make some prejudiced conclusions about the work.

      First of all, I sensed—and I was correct—that Daniels’ movie was a very old-fashioned Hollywood epic, taking us by the hand through historical events of American Blacks, from early days of slavery, through the turmoil of racial protests and riots, major changes in laws and cultural behavior from the Eisenhower years of the 1950s straight through to Obama’s election in the first decade of the new millennium. I have never been a fan of what I might describe as the “Forrest Gump” approach to history, films that take a chronological view of their heroes’ lives as their move through political and cultural events. True, Cecil Gaines—a real life White House butler—worked at the epicenter of these shifts, but clearly, as the film emphasizes, that does not necessarily mean he was fully or, sometimes, even partially aware of the significance of the presidential and congressional decisions going on around him.    

     As the perfect butler, he, like the butler in James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, is encouraged and advised, as well as self-determined to ignore any knowledge or even possibility of hearing what is going on around him. Rather, as a perfect servant, he was there simply to serve, to exquisitely and elegantly foretell his master’s needs, bringing a drink at the precisely right moment, holding out silver trays of delicacies while impassively standing at attention without truly attending to anything but the needs of the president, his staff, and guests. Like the central character of Ivory’s work, the evil goings-on, even the significant reforms and break-throughs in governmental policy did not register on Gaines’ face, and, if this movie is to be believed (and at many moments, it is not to be believed) failed to register in his inner mind.    

      Fortunately, Daniels’ film, despite its structural spine of all those years of standing just a few feet from the most influential people in American history, focuses not on the White House, but on Gaines’ home life, and it is in that warm and often troubled world, filled with the love of Gaines, his wife, and their two boys—at least in the early years—which spiritually grounds this work and brings the Black characters some dimension. We can forgive Daniels, I suppose, after thousands and thousands of Hollywood films who have treated Blacks as mere figureheads, if Daniels treats nearly all of the white figures of his film in the same manner. Perhaps in an attempt to seemingly puff-up his cardboard white creations, the director chose some of the major actors in the business, including Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams (as Eisenhower), James Mardsen (Kennedy), John Cusak (Nixon), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Reagan), and Jane Fonda (Mrs. Reagan) to briefly inhabit these noted beings.

     Yet all of them are mere cameos compared to the far deeper acting skills of Cuba Gooding, Lenny Kravitz, and, in particular, Whitaker and Winfrey. Since Gaines, however, is not allowed political reaction—a role, strangely enough, he maintains in his home life—the writer and director expanded the real Gaines’ only son, into two, the youngest serving and dying, like millions of other young Black men, in Viet Nam, and the other becoming involved in nearly every Black political movement of the time, from the original Woolworth sit-in and the Freedom Bus riders, to involvements with Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers. In truth, so I have read, Gaines’ son was not particularly politically involved, but in a movie dedicated to recounting most of Black history of the period, the writer needed someone to portray what Cecil and his wife were nearly blind to, encompassing it in the fine acting of David Oyelowo.

       The more involved Cecil’s son Louis is in political activities, the more the father isolates himself from his son and the significance of those events, as if facing them might have made it impossible to look the figures he daily serves in the eyes. And the rupture between the two seems to be so palpable (if improbable) that you almost feel the son is justified in describing his hard-working father as an Uncle Tom. This butler, like Ivory’s British gentleman, at the close of his life seems to be left with very little, despite daily rubbing elbows with such powerful men and women: all he has left is a tie Jackie Kennedy has given him upon John Kennedy’s death, a tie clip tossed to him by Johnson and a couple of other trinkets. And in his long absences Gloria has turned to alcohol and even, momentarily, to their male neighbor.     

     It is not the American situation, but the South African apartheid, which Reagan refuses to oppose, that finally begins to insinuate the issues of race into Gaines thoughts (predictably, in the constant attempt these days to redeem Reagan’s heritage, there was a public outcry against this film’s portrayal of him, arguing that he did oppose apartheid, but was afraid South African might turn to Communism—although I see it as part and parcel of the same issue in Regan’s thinking). And it is only when Gaines actually is invited by Nancy Reagan to a White House dinner, not as a servant, but as a guest with his wife, that he, for the first time, really perceives his outsider status. Somewhat unconvincingly, he finally begins to perceive how, for so many years, he has been blind to the very history he has witnessed and he becomes suddenly desperate to recover his inner passion. Resigning from his position, Gaines finds his son speaking to protestors nearby about apartheid, and willingly joins him, being arrested along with Louis for his activities.

      Now that its central character has spiritually “come to life,” the film quickly fast forwards to the Obama election, spinning into a sentimental closing, by showing the agèd couple about to attend what appears to be an Obama gathering. While awaiting their son, now an elected official, to take them to the event, Gloria dies, and Louis suddenly is truly left with the few “remains of the day.” Obama’s election, however, signifies that despite all of his silent suffering, he—at least as a stand-in for all Blacks—has now won back his pride. Putting on the few treasures he has from all those years of quietude, he visits Obama, who has called him to the great white home in-the-sky, which he knows, perhaps, better than any of its temporary inhabitants.

     In short, although the film often creaks along in its shopping-list-like recounting of Black history through the years of this exceptional butler’s employment, it also presents a healthy antidote to so much of American film-making in its dramatic presentation of a real-life Black family living out their lives in the nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., after all, is a city, one must remember, where the true life-time inhabitants are not the thousands of whites who temporarily take over its wealthy neighborhoods as politicians and parties rise to power and fall, but the Blacks of several lovely middle class and south Anacostia poor neighborhoods. It is the men and women in power who “come and go,” while the administrators, butlers, maids, and others stand firm in their grounded roles.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (October 2013).

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