Friday, September 6, 2013

Shorthand History: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Robin Williams & Forest Whitaker in The Butler
In The Butler, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels use the life of a White House butler, relayed in flashback, to reflect the history of race politics in America from the days of Jim Crow through the election of Barack Obama. It’s such an ingenious idea – and the film is such a moving depiction of the struggle for civil rights – that even when the narrative information feels shoehorned in the movie it still works. Forest Whitaker gives a performance of tremendous warmth and feeling as Cecil Gaines, who leaves the Georgia cotton plantation where he grew up to live in the North. The picture begins in 1926 but for a black family living in the South it might as well be pre-Civil War: as a boy Cecil (played at this point by Michael Rainey Jr.) sees the vicious son (Alex Pettyfer) of the plantation owner, Miss Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), shoot down his father (David Banner) after dragging his mother (Mariah Carey) off to be raped. Out of pity, Miss Annabel takes the boy out of the fields and trains him to be a “house nigger,” inculcating him with the virtues of the perfect servant, who must move with such stealth and grace that the white folks he serves can’t hear him breathe. But he grows up under the menacing gaze of his father’s killer and at fifteen (now played by Aml Ameen) he departs for his own safety. And he lucks out: desperate for food, he breaks into a hotel restaurant, but the man (Clarence Williams III) who finds him is a waiter who takes him under his wing. By the time Whitaker moves into the role, Cecil is working at a high-end D.C. hotel, where his skills attract the notice of R.D. Warner (Jim Gleason), who hires the domestic staff for Eisenhower’s White House.

Daniels, who is African American, is drawn to racial material of a volatile nature, but he doesn’t treat it as fodder for melodrama. His breakthrough movie, Precious, told the horrifying story of the abuse of a teenage girl, but he used humor and wit to vary the emotional palette, and his work with the actors hewed to a level of truthfulness that kept the film from becoming exploitative. In the first flashback in The Butler we don’t see the rape (we hear the victim’s screams), just its aftermath – Cecil’s father’s silent confrontation with the rapist (which is sufficient provocation for the murder of a black man in Georgia) and a brief scene where the teenage boy says goodbye to his nearly catatonic mother. Daniels’s approach is a kind of shorthand naturalism. He sketches in the storytelling details but even the actors in very small roles convey the impression that we’re seeing excerpts from considerably more extended performances. The film feels underwritten in places – though you can see in places that it was whittled it down from a much longer cut – but it never feels underimagined. For example, Cecil’s wife Gloria’s alcoholism and her affair with his friend Howard are given much shorter shrift than they would be in a movie without such a broad historical backdrop, but Oprah Winfrey gives such an emotionally dense and precise performance as Gloria, and as her lover Terrence Howard has such a vibrant presence, that in terms of their characters we never feel we’ve missed anything important. And though not all the episodes work equally well, I can’t think of a more effective choice for rounding up so much narrative. (Strong’s screenplay, which he derived from an article by Wil Haywood, is based on a true story.)

Terrence Howard & Oprah Winfrey
The trickiest part of the story is the contrast of Cecil’s life, serving seven presidents from Ike through Reagan – the movie skips over Ford and we see Carter only in newsreel footage – with that of his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes an active participant in the civil rights struggle over his dad’s strenuous objections. Cecil is relieved that he can raise his sons (the younger, Charlie, is played by the quick-witted young actor Elijah Kelly, who always sounds like he’s improvising his lines) in the north, where they can live safe lives. When Emmett Till is lynched, Cecil dismisses the incident as “that mess [that] happened down South,” while Louis naturally identifies with Till, who was around his age. Cecil is proud of Louis, the first Gaines to graduate from high school, but Louis is adamant that his having attended a segregated school diminishes the accomplishment. His father wants him to stay up North but Louis insists on going to Nashville to attend Fisk – not, as it turns out, to get a formal education but in order to learn the rudiments of non-violent resistance. He becomes a Freedom Rider and he and his father grow intolerant of each other, Cecil humiliated that his son keeps getting arrested and terrified at the danger he continually puts himself in, Louis ashamed that his father is in service. And Cecil’s estrangement from his son unsettles his marriage to Gloria, who complains that he cares more about his job than about his family. When Jack Kennedy (James Marsden) is assassinated and Cecil returns home devastated, Gloria reminds him that he hasn’t been attending to their own domestic woes. (We learn about JFK’s fate through Cecil’s response to it: his close friend and co-worker Carter Wilson – a charming and uncharacteristically restrained performance by Cuba Gooding, Jr. – walks into the White House kitchen to find Cecil crumpled on the floor, awash in tears. This is a heartbreaking scene, as is the one that follows, where Cecil is unable to do anything for Jackie – played by Minka Kelly – when she returns to the White House still wearing her bloodied suit.)

David Oyelowo as Louis
This double plotting works best in the civil rights section of the movie, which intercuts the work of Cecil and the rest of the White House butlers (Lenny Kravitz is the other standout, as James Holloway, the most political savvy of them) with Louis’s training in Nashville and his first lunch-counter protest. We’ve seen some of this material in documentaries like Eyes on the Prize and Freedom on My Mind, but The Butler marks the first time most of it – like the way the white kids are asked to put aside their liberalism and play the roles of racists to prepare the black kids for the way they’re going to be dealt with when they defy the Jim Crow laws – has been dramatized, and it’s really potent. (I think I watched this entire chunk of the movie through tears.) And the juxtaposition of these two generations of black men, interacting with two radically different faces of the white power structure in two radically different ways, is a remarkable strategy for exposing at the breadth of African American life in the early sixties. This is the most affecting part of the picture. At one point Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis), whom Louis has gotten close to, lectures him on the importance of the black domestic to the civil rights struggle; he makes the case that men like Louis’s father are unwitting subversives. Cecil would be appalled at the idea, but his interactions with his first three presidents confirms King’s theory in unusual ways (given Cecil’s proximity to the highest echelon of American politics during explosive times). When Cecil brings Eisenhower (Robin Williams) coffee while he’s indulging his hobby, painting, Ike surprises him by asking if his boys attend an all-black school and we see the effect of Cecil’s affirmative answer in the pause that follows. Kennedy (James Marsden) astonishes Cecil by telling him that he knows all about Louis’s activities and that the work of the Freedom Riders has changed his and Bobby’s hearts. By the time LBJ (Liev Schreiber) has succeeded him, Cecil feels confident enough to confide his fears about his son. The filmmakers make comic note of Johnson’s coarseness; Carter is amused when the president says “Negro” rather than “nigger” on TV. But they pay tribute to the roles all three of these leaders played in the advancement of civil rights, and in each case we see how their statesmanship results from the way their humanity has been touched.

James Marsden & Minka Kelly
A word about the casting of the presidents. It’s resolutely and consistently quirky; I don’t think I would have thought of any of the actors Daniels found for these roles, except perhaps for Marsden – and Minka Kelly, who played the cheerleader (one of the two ingénues) in the first three seasons of Friday Night Lights, wouldn’t have occurred to me – but every single one of them works, including John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan, with Jane Fonda as Nancy. Daniels may have been trying to avoid impersonations (though Cusack does an entertaining replication of Nixon’s well known speech patterns), to make us see these famous figures through a fresh lens. From a physical standpoint you might imagine Robin Williams as Truman; cast as Eisenhower, he appears to be in such unfamiliar waters that he trusts his instincts and goes straight for the character, and Daniels sees to it that he doesn’t rely on his usual dramatic fallback, sentimentality. It’s the best work he’s done in years – decades.

It’s unfortunate that Strong makes Louis a confidant of Martin Luther King; he’s in the Memphis motel room with him where he later gets shot (though the script doesn’t make this point), and then, after he and his Freedom Rider girl friend Carol (Yaya Alafia, in the film’s only unplayable role) become Black Panthers and appear in the Oakland apartment mere hours before the Feds lay siege to it, you start to think of Louis as an African American Zelig. The movie’s shorthand approach doesn’t fit the era of Black Power; race politics have become too thorny and complex to render in a few brushstrokes, and Louis’s flirtation with the Panthers feels silly. (It’s short-lived; he’s too steeped in the philosophy of non-violence to throw it off so easily.) When he and Carol show up at his parents’ house for dinner in their new Afros, the scene, which is terrible, looks more like a costume change in a Hollywood epic than character development. You never believe in this romantic relationship anyway, from the moment they become lovers after narrowly escaping being shot walking away from one of Malcolm X’s speeches to their break-up moments because she’s committed to the Panthers and he isn’t. It doesn’t help that the last thing he says to her is “Did you ever love me?” when everyone in the audience feels capable of supplying the answer.

Forest Whitaker
The Butler survives the mistakes the filmmakers make in the second half, however – when Cecil learns not only to recognize his son’s heroism but to unearth his own roots – because they’re honest mistakes and because it’s built up so much good faith in the first half. And there are wonderful things in the second half too, like the scene where father and son, now reconciled, watch together as Obama wins the 2008 election. The movie builds up a groundswell of emotion, and even when it falters it’s inclusive and big-hearted. Like Precious, The Butler belongs to a Hollywood tradition – the first is reminiscent of the post-World War II social-problem pictures, with their premium on a new brand of realist acting, the second of big-boned theme-centered epics like The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s heartening to see a gifted black director lay claim to these traditions and make them his own.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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