September 12, 2013

Helping to Topple Jim Crow, As a Family

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For a review of a movie like this, it is best to get right to the point: Lee Daniels’ The Butler is excellent. Typing those words, pairing this kind of perennial, distractingly star-studded Oscar bait with a word like “excellent” surprises me still. But if a review is anything, it must be honest, so I will be just that. The Butler not only moved me more than any other film this year (save for, perhaps, Fruitvale Station); it brought to life one of the most turbulent and inspiring periods in our country’s history while psychologically, socially and politically picking it apart.

That period is, of course, the civil rights movement, as seen from the vantage point of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whittaker), a black White House butler who served Presidents Eisenhower to Reagan, and who screenwriter Danny Strong based loosely on the little-known Eugene Allen. Cecil learns early in his career that the room should feel empty when he’s in it, and that the white men (and occasional woman) who fill these spaces of privilege expect faultless service and Uncle Tom-ism. “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House,” says the building’s black maître d’, with a mild smile. Cecil Gaines must wear two different faces: one stoic yet grateful, in front of the white man; another entirely before his wife (Oprah Winfrey, of all people) and two sons.

This clash of personae tears Cecil apart over the span of 34 years and makes for some incisive social commentary, but The Butler succeeds as drama and art (yes, I used that word) because Cecil’s eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), takes notice. Louis grows up ashamed of his father and what he sees as his demeaning line of work, even as Cecil puts more than enough bread on the table, including starched polo shirts for his sons. At Fisk University, Louis finds his calling in the Freedom Riders and perseveres through the beatings, obscenities and, most harrowingly, firebombs hurled his way.

Louis’ militancy should inspire any conscious viewer, yet Strong and director Lee Daniels coax some crucial moral ambiguity, not to mention over two hours of narrative tension, by pitting Louis and Cecil against one another and allowing things to get, well, ugly. While history has deemed Louis’ sit-ins across the South as a watershed moment in non-violent activism, the jury is still out on the Black Panther party, which Louis dives into with an anarchic zeal, much to the dismay of his father. Cecil may have stood against progress by discouraging Louis from getting involved in any of the political affairs that he himself carefully avoided all his life, but he valued the cogency and safety of his family more than anything else, which no father could blame him for. They scuffle and bare their teeth at one another, each believing with all their might in a code of conduct that the assimilation of their era soon enough deems irrelevant.  Whereas most civil rights films make time for the suffering of their black characters only to bestow the ultimate agency onto sympathetic white characters (see The Help), The Butler keeps the struggle within the black family unit, where the oppositions were often more trenchant and deep-seated than most of us, at least I, could ever believe.

Let us not forget that this a movie about a butler serving the Oval Office, where Daniels unleashes a drove of character actors and former A-list talent to fill the President’s seat. James Marsden may sound more like Mayor Quimby than JFK, but he brings smooth style to spare. John Cusack plays Nixon straight, with little makeup and surprising generosity, while Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber and Alan Rickman throw on bald caps, witch noses and a greasy toupee as Ike, LBJ and the Gipper, respectively. Those last three performances veer into camp, which Daniels, as the director of The Paperboy, can handle, tonal inconsistencies be damned.

There are about a million other actors to mention, including Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan (there seems to be no ulterior motive in her firm yet warm portrayal) and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s genial co-workers. Many of these roles are paper thin, although none is as troubling as the plantation owner played by Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike). In one of the earliest scenes, this brute of a man rapes Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey, actually) and blows out her husband’s brains, all in front of a (understandably) traumatized young Cecil. Now, I don’t doubt events like these occurred, but as one of the gateways into this film’s world, it proves especially jarring. Such plantation killings bring to mind the 19th century and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; 1920s hate crime is more often associated with lynching, a motif Daniels also employs. This is a nitpick, in a way, but it simplifies Cecil’s conflict into some binary of white versus black, whereas the rest of the film opts for more internalized and relatable struggles.

Movies like The Butler — the sentimental, decades-spanning Academy-Award-for-Best-Makeup-Oscar-hopefuls “inspired by true events” — are flawed creatures. As much as you cried throughout Forrest Gump, doesn’t that one look funny the more you inspect it? What was its theme, its purpose? The Butler holds up to scrutiny because Strong and Daniels had the clear mind to keep the family dynamic at its core, where history bleeds into their lives and not the other way around. Cecil may win over the hearts of the world’s most powerful men, and Louis may help topple Jim Crow, but they only got there because of the other, whether they like it or not.