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Lee Daniels’ The Butler: A Compelling Narrative Through the 20th Century

August 17, 2013

I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler and before I dig into it, I just want to say that it was very good. How good was it? It was ‘People were clapping in the theater when it ended’ good. From start to finish this is a well made, well performed film. This is definitely the first big breath of fresh air from dumb summer movies this season, and possibly the start of Oscar-bait for this year.

Some people might be surprised that this is what I chose to review this week, since a film like Kick Ass 2 is far more of ‘my bag.’ However, I have to say that I always felt the first Kick Ass missed the point of Kick Ass. The film made the main character very likable, when he’s really sort of an unrepentant asshole. The trailer, which shows him getting buff, implied to me a continuation of power fantasy rather than any sort of examination of why the costumed adventurers are not a thing.

Hence, I went to see an actually interesting film.

Truly I think what makes The Butler such a good film is the that it has extremely good pacing. There was never a point in its 132 minutes that I ever felt its length or bored or disengaged. Every moment, even though they’re spread out chronologically, seems to flow into the next. While the narrative of Cecil Gaines’ (Forest Whitaker) life is constructed through these ‘important’ vignettes, you still get an actual sense of his day-to-day life.

Daniels, and the screenwriter Danny Strong,. really created a film that is composed of slices of life in a very real sense. The ups and downs of the Gaines family, and how it intertwines with the history of the civil rights movement, is at once joyous and painful. There are moments when you become misty-eyed or angry but then in the next you’ll be laughing without ever succumbing to mood whiplash. The transitions are seamless and it never feels like these are the wrong reactions to have. That fact alone speaks volumes about the strength of the direction, the screenplay, and the ensemble cast’s performance.

The other thing is that there have been many films about the civil rights movement, and countless meditations on both real and fictional stories having to do with race in America. This is to the point where its almost a genre unto itself, and in many ways Cecil Gaines wouldn’t seem out of place as the stock older black man who holds back progress via his own complacency. The type of person that his son, Louis Gaines, will provide a stirring monologue to at some point that will open his old man’s eyes.

Yet, the movie refrains from that because this is a movie about Cecil Gaines and his relationship with the civil rights movement, which like all things involving race in the United States is far more complex than it might seem on the surface. Throughout the film we see Cecil contemplate, and hope, and sometimes simply stand agape at the march of history. The sequence of Cecil walking home through the ’68 DC riots, with his raspy pensive voice over providing a reflection from decades later, is one of the scenes that stuck with me after I left the theater because of how disorienting yet focusing it was.

The only flaw I see in this film is with the nature of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s son, who as a member of the Civil Rights movement is sadly placed in the worst position of the film. He is the character who is contrived to appear at countless historical moments throughout the Civil Rights movement. From Woolworth Sit-Ins to standing at the gates of the South African embassy chanting, ‘Free Mandela,’ Gaines is an ever present figure in history. Luckily though, the film manages to bring you into its world enough that you don’t really question this as much as you might in a worse film. Daniels’ manages to connect Louis’ life and juxtapose it with his father’s so well that even when you do notice it, you’re willing to give it a pass.

From beginning to end, The Butler is moving and powerful while still maintaining the joyous humor of life. I highly recommend seeing it in theaters, and if you somehow miss it, catch it as soon as it comes to “home video.”

 

For the superfans, there is some minor nerding out and spoilers after the break.

 

 

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Greetings, superfans! Chariots chariots!

 

Service, as a trade, is an interesting concept. The idea of someone being willingly subservient, and yet the nature of service being generally connected to a history of oppression (either subtle or violent) is intriguing. Especially in the modern United States, it seems almost ludicrous to think that there still is a definite Upstairs/Downstairs dichotomy in many households. People who employ other people as ‘the help.’

Some may even be shocked to remember that the White House does very much function like a manor or plantation house of old, with countless people simply dedicated to supporting its day-to-day functions. Even a prominent show like The West Wing only occasionally touched upon the reality that went into the state dinners and maintaining the West Wing in a literal sense.

That’s part of why I found the very concept of The Butler intriguing, because it does provide a unique view of history, and touches inherently upon one of the most difficult subjects in America; race. It wasn’t that long ago that people were up-in-arms about Paula Deen’s suggestion of a ‘traditional Southern wedding,’ (where all the servants were black) side stepping the fact that there are many people who would agree with her description as appropriate. There is a very ugly side to America, including the American South, that has to do with centuries of oppression and service.

The opening of the film, which takes place in 1926 yet seems no different than if the film were set in 1856 truly sets this theme in motion. It’s becoming increasingly easier to forget about how some parts of the country operated well after the 14th Amendment was created even when there is plenty of evidence to suggest those opinions and feelings were never quite dispelled by the passage of time. The film pulls us swiftly away from this harshness to a much more subtle world.

Cecil’s life in service is one where he is constantly confronted with ‘his place,’ in society. As a servant however, he takes pride in his ability to maintain his place or at least the simple illusion of it. This is what he refers to as the ‘two faces’ that all servants know; your actual face, and the face that you wear to survive amongst the people you serve. There are these wonderful shots of Whitaker hearing something or momentarily responding to something when no one can see him and then the radical transformation to servant that occurs. The fact that this becomes more pronounced as the film goes on, fits perfectly with his conflicted feelings in regards to the civil rights movement and his place in it.

This isn’t to say that the movie ever suggests that Cecil Gaines is wrong by choosing not to participate in the civil rights movement. It’s quite the opposite. His quiet strength, dedication, and persistence, especially in light of his strained relationship with his son, are often shown to be inspiring. This is even commented upon in a monologue by Dr. King to Louis about the subtle ways domestic servants can and have subverted white perceptions for many years.

When Cecil Gaines does reach an understanding with the civil rights movement, it’s on his own terms. He has seen many sides of the world and finally decides that he can’t be quiet any longer. Yet, Cecil isn’t the type of person to become angry or loud. He steps forward to present his argument for fairness politely and with respect, a respect that he expects to be returned in kind.

The two moments of the film for me that I felt had the most tension in them, were not the many depictions of the violence involved with the civil rights movement. It was the two scenes where Cecil Gaines goes to make an argument for equal pay and chances for advancement amongst the White House staff for the black staff members. These two scenes are amazing yet so quiet, and understated. You really feel like everything is on the line in these scenes. The march of history in regards to the Civil Rights Movement is something that we know, yet the inner workings of the White House is something we don’t. Somehow, it’s the lingering question of equal pay for the White House staff that holds more power than the big events of history. The beauty of these scenes though is that Cecil’s triumph with the wages is ultimately what leads to his questioning and finally reconciliation with his son. The moment when splitting himself between two faces is no longer worth it and he decides to stop being afraid, as he puts it.

While I reflect on the serious parts of this film, and there’s much more to it, I don’t want to paint the film in an overly dramatic light. There is a lot of life and history to this film, and with that comes a levity, which is brought about not merely by actual comedy but also the awkwardness inherent to existence. At many points during The Butler people in the theater were laughing and I found myself smiling over little things. With moments like when Nixon (Cusack) hands the black butlers pins for his election campaign, or when Gloria Gaines (Winfrey, in an amazing performance) reflects on her granddaughter’s name as an old woman, you just can’t help yourself from laughing. Even with its fast pace, and the way it seems to breeze through years, The Butler still manages to touch on the good parts of life.

On a closing note, I just want to mention how brilliant the ensemble cast really was. Every member of the Gaines family was brilliant, and there’s no other way to put that. Oprah was astounding as was David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines). Even Elijah Kelley as Charlie Gaines, Cecil’s younger son who seems almost dropped from the movie before returning for some of the best comedic moments and also one of the more interesting reflections on Louis’ actions, was great.

The various Presidents who come and go through Cecil’s life each deserve their own praise. While Liev Schreiber as Johnson does take the cake for his ability to portray a man who really was as ridiculous as we all like to imagine he was, it is Alan Rickman as Reagan that was really the most intense and interesting. While Marsden (JFK), Cusack (Nixon), and Robin Williams (Eisenhower) were all brilliant in their roles, there was just a surprising authenticity from Rickman that was hard to ignore.

Seriously, why are you still reading this?

Go see the movie.

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