the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

The Black Woman’s Burden

In the interest of full disclosure: epic bio-pics rank with movie adaptations of musical comedies as my least favorite film experience. (see my review of Spike Lee’s “X”: ).  “Lee Daniels' The Butler” is a new mainstream feature based on the biography of Eugene Allen, an African American man, who rose from Southern Cotton fields to serve as a key member of the White House staff for decades.  Perhaps “mainstream” is not accurate in that the Hollywood suits never would have bet millions on such a project capturing America’s transition from the Jim Crow era through the civil rights struggle and beyond. Note the competition at the theater I attended: “We’re the Millers” (a Jennifer Aniston comedy with the premise of a stripper traveling to Mexico, incognito as a soccer mom, for a drug deal), “Disney Planes” (animated children’s feature staring anthropomorphic airplanes ), “One Direction: this is Us” (documentary about the pop group featured in 2 and 3D), “The World’s End” (beer drinkers face zombies) and “Elysium” (Matt Damon in future apocalyptic thriller).  The folks at Fox saw this last film as a socialist parable about the evils of our current immigration policy... others view it as simply a slick sci-fi movie. Needless to say one can safely assume that even if this film had a political agenda - it wasn’t going to get funded without a muscle bound, leather clad Damon dancing around pyrotechnical special effects.  It is doubtful that any 11 year old boy (who seem to be the target audience) left the theater with a passion for the plight of illegals or resentment about the class divide. “The Butler” is a no holes bared view of American’s cruel treatment of its black citizens in modern times. It is an overt expose of the dark side of ‘one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all’.  One can feel the studio executives grabbing the antacid tablets at the early meetings.  I would have loved to have seen a video of one of them turning down Oprah Winfrey. I imagine the dialogue: “It’s a really good script... ah really important BUT....” cue the special effects for Ms. Winfrey’s reaction. 

Oprah is a force of nature in the entertainment business and has shown the willingness to back projects based her personal belief that something is ‘important’.. In fact she has created an industry based on her own taste which has upended television, film and book publishing. Not bad for a woman born to a single black teenage mother who worked as a domestic in Kosciusko Mississippi. One can see that she would be drawn to the story of a man born in the grip of Southern oppression who, working as a domestic, rises to a position where he is on a first name basis with the leaders of the ‘free’ world.  Lee Daniels, a Winfrey protege, is a daring African American journeyman film producer. In 2009 Winfrey put her power behind “Precious”. Mr. Daniels, a former nursing agency entrepreneur, created a film about a morbidly obese, sexually abused illiterate African American teenager. Once again it is easy to understand Ms. Winfrey’s attraction to the plot given her own Dickensian childhood of poverty and abuse.  The film entered the Sundance Festival without a major distributor and finished the year with a multi-million dollar box office gross and a number of Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. It won in the best supporting actress category. None of this would have happened except for Winfrey’s stamp of approval. Not surprisingly “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”  had poor financial prospects given the serious content. In the end - the film was #1 at the box office for 3 weeks and has grossed nearly $100 million.  Note: the budget was around $30 million. Once again... it is Oprah’s world and we just live in it.

Mr. Daniels, as director, is faced with the daunting task of balancing the vast historical story with the relatively small world of the butler.  In 1979 NBC did a television mini-series called “Backstairs at the White House” which chronicled the relations between the Presidents and the domestic staff for a period of 60 years as told from the POV of an African American mother and daughter.  It’s strange that Mr. Daniels failed to give a theatrical nod to the real life Lillian Rodgers Parks whose mother started working as a housemaid in the Taft administration. Parks. who was a seamstress, retired during the Eisenhower administration - the same time the Mr. Daniels character assumed his responsibilities. Perhaps he felt the ‘originality’ of his project was sacrosanct? “Backstairs” was interesting in terms of the historical gossip but the domestics’ domestic challenges were less captivating.  “The Butler” repeats this unfortunate dramatic lull.  Despite Winfrey’s strong appeal as a performer her battles with the bottle and men failed to compete with the Butler interacting with Jack Kennedy during Civil Right mayhem or Nixon during Watergate.

The second major artistic challenge is integrating the history with the arc of the story. Given the fact that the film breaks the two hour mark it is not surprising that this exercise had hits and misses. One must remember this is popular drama for a mass audience rather than detailed scholarly study. Daniels hits all the big moments and the big characters hit their big marks. Daniels has the butler’s son turn into a Zelig-like character who goes from the Freedom Marchers’s daring struggle to the Black Panthers radical excess to anti-apartheid acceptable righteousness while the butler himself struggles with intergenerational torment of having survived Jim Crow. It’s all, well, as one would except. Kennedy is charming. Nixon is creepy. Johnson is vulgar. The butler is appropriately glad/mad/ happy/ sad. Forest Whitaker  has the ability summon vast currents of emotional wattage. I felt my TV set dimming from sheer lack of current during his guest appearance on the TV show “the Shield”. I was nervous about him being cast in this type of drama as his tears and sweat might drench the first few rows of the theater. Ironically he kept it in check - in his case the result is a good heartfelt performance.  Ditto for Winfrey. Although she failed in her battle with history; it was a valiant effort. Daniels’ historical re-enactments create one sharp note amidst the gushing music and gooey cinematography: the portrayal of Ronald Reagan. Given the director’s penchant for simplicity this segment was the unintentional highlight of the film.

Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, wrote a rebuke to what he saw as a portrait of his father as a racist. Here is the closing paragraph of his Op-Ed entitled “Butler from Another Planet:

Despite what Hollywood’s liberal hacks believe, my father didn’t see people in colors. He saw them as individual Americans. If the liberals in Hollywood -- and Washington -- ever start looking at people the way he did, the country will be a lot better off.

The film itself is extremely generous about Reagan and his relationship with the butler which stood in stark contrast with the President’s support of the racist South African regime. Michael Reagan does not refute the history but instead says the Gipper was acting within the context of Cold War politics not animosity towards blacks. He counters that Reagan had a history of having black friends and standing up for African Americans. The film SUPPORTS the idea that the President was personally NOT a racist.  Reagan trusted the butler to dole out cash to constituents while hiding this from the First Lady and his staff.  The confidence was mutual: the butler trusted him to lift the decades long internal White House wage discrimination against the black staff. In fact Jimmy Carter, the left leaning Democrat, is omitted from the film suggesting that the butler failed to trust him to overturn the internal pay disparity. Interesting question to know if in real life, President Carter, a person who was such a control freak he personally approved who played on the White House tennis court, failed to overturn this longstanding injustice. President Reagan,  according to the film, was affable and righteous in regards to his personal associations with African Americans. His son, however, doth protest to much. The historical record shows failings far beyond the South Africa policy. Reagan was AGAINST the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his skittishness regarding racial equality carried over into his later career. His first public speech after receiving the Republican Presidential nomination in 1980 was in Philadelphia Mississippi, the town famous for the murder of three civil rights workers during the freedom march. He chose the topic of  “States Rights” saying he would “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them”. Given this it was not a surprise that the KKK endorsed Reagan for President. The HISTORICAL record clearly shows him capitalizing on white resentment for political gain. Perhaps what upset Michael Reagan was the strange reaction the butler himself had to Nancy Reagan’s invitation to a state dinner as a guest rather than a employee.

The critic Walter Benjamin said that kitsch art "offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation".  The Reagan sequence is one of the few moments which require the film audience to dig out the emotional inner life of the characters.  There is nothing in the preceding hour and a half to prepare the audience for the butler’s queasiness at being perceived as the show negro at the White House state dinner. In fact the previous encounters with President and Mrs. Reagan seem genuine and cordial.  Why was the butler offended? It is especially odd given he had just successfully overturned decades of entrenched pay-scale racism within the White House. The First Lady refers to this victory and commends him on his leadership. In the end the butler resigns, ostensibly due to Reagan’s stand on South Africa. The President himself is genuinely saddened and confesses possibly being wrong on civil rights and South Africa - but he never changes his policies. At this point the characters are wrestling with demons that seem to savage the kitsch auto-pilot sensibility of the most of the drama. This conflict has shades of love and hate that stand in stark contrast to the parade of pure representatives of good and evil.   This film needed more of that subtly. It was a jarring moment which gave life to a somnolent storyline; perhaps this is what triggered Reagan’s son to pen the fierce op ed. There were a few other missed opportunities for character introspection. The decision for the butler to leave his mute, mentally ill, sexually abused mother was blurred over in voice over. Ditto for the relationship between himself and the old white female house manager who saved him from the field.  In a monologue he insists that she would miss him dearly although she never showed it.  Why? This is the heart of the story. The friction between good people participating in morally bankrupt actions that hurt those they supposedly love. It is a challenge to paint this portrait using one dimensional characters who rarely let down their guard to show... inner turmoil? denial? justification?... nothing at all?

It is a tall order to wish that this film would plumb the soul of the characters caught up in the struggle for African American enfranchisement.  Perhaps it is an unfair expectation as the creators are illustrating broad stokes of history in palatable easy to digest narratives. Winfrey and Daniels see themselves as delivering a synthesis of grand themes to an audience that has little or no knowledge of the past. This estimation of ignorance might seem harsh until you consider that numerous news outlets have conducted studies which reveal that nearly one third of Americans would fail the civics section of the test given to new immigrants. Once again this trend can only worsen as scores of students abandon History and other humanities subjects in favor of business studies due to the escalation in the price of tuition. In this new harsh economic shrinking pie reality, Winfrey and Daniels are entrepreneurs filling a need. Don’t bother with the nitty gritty - just the outline.  Why become bogged down in MLK’s radical economic views or the Black Panther’s misogyny or Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s race politics....  Their product eschews unrelenting negativity and bothersome complications.  Ironically they are pushing the most overreaching, and perhaps pernicious of American values: blind optimism.

Gore Vidal was an author who shared Daniels and Winfrey’s ‘outsider’ status in the traditional halls of power. Although he was to the manor born, he wrote openly about homosexuality in the late 1940s and became a fierce critic of his fellow Brahim.  His historical novels set in 19th century attempt to ‘explain’ the past to the masses he feels are duped by entrenched power.  Vidal quipped : “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.” No doubt Winfrey and Daniels have the same sense of righteousness.  In their case, however, they are firmly living the American dream.  A ‘happy ending’ is vital to their world view.  It is doubtful that Winfrey or Daniels would ever back a film about such historical events as the 1917 Houston insurrection or the 1921 Tulsa race riots. In both cases the good, law abiding black citizens were crushed under the harsh unforgiving stone wheel of Jim Crow.  The election of the first African American President was vital to the success of this film. The closing sequence features the retired butler being led the oval office by a fawning newly appointed African American chief of White House Operations. It was said that President Obama was asked to actually participate in this film.  Perhaps his advisers recalled the last time a main stream American ‘serious’ bio-pic attempted profundity with a cameo by a real live historical figure: Nelson Mandela’s appearance in Spike Lee’s “X”.  Don’t remember? Neither does anyone else.  The point is that, despite the seeming critique of ‘the system’ - “The Butler” is a parable about the possibility of progressive change in America.

Both Daniels, a black homosexual, and Winfrey, an African American woman, were born into worlds that gave no voice to their respective groups. Both have good reason to applaud America’s bounty. There is, however,  an odd contradiction in being a cheerleader for a system that, statistically, is unkind to so many of your constituents. Perhaps a more appropriate closing for this film would have been the addition of a scene in which the distinguished Butler, who has just met the President, is unable to hail a taxi cab because of his race. The struggles continues and the majority will never see the promise land of equal opportunity. Here is a sobering fact: African Americans make up 13% of the general population and account for 43% of the people in American prisons.  Once again the American dream exists. It is doubtful someone of Ms. Winfrey’s race and class would have been able to achieve the heights of fame of power in any other country. But even the broad strokes of history should be tempered by the ugly reality that class mobility in the United States fails to match rhetoric of our national land of opportunity. The NY Times in 2012 writes that social mobility is greater in Canada and Europe than the land of the free and the brave. ( ) It is important not to overlook the gains made. Women of my grandmother’s generation were born legally disenfranchised from voting. I was born at a time when African American’s were de jure second class citizens. Winfrey and Daniels are correct in celebrating a William Cullen Bryant quote spoken by Dr. King: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again”. But the key is, what truth? It is equally important to  echoed a sentiment spoken by Gore Vidal:

“The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”

Vidal overstates the case and there is nothing wrong with entrepreneurs of any stripe selling historical ‘bon bons’.  It is troubling, however, that there is such little illumination of the economic divide.  One forgets that Dr. King was in the midst of organizing a massive rally pointing out economic injustice when he was assassinated. It would be a tough issue to raise for someone who purchases handbags that equal the downpayment on most homes. Once again expecting Oprah to tackle serious social issues is the equivalent of wanting a Hallmark birthday card to read: another year closer to death.  Certainly a factual statement... but probably not a money maker for the greeting card giant. She is a businesswoman; an entrepreneurial juggernaut, PERIOD. Mr. Daniels is a first rate commercial director, PERIOD. Buying into the premise that they are social activists, is akin to believing one will change the world by buying Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  It is sophomoric to expect our good natured moguls to be superhero activists. Oprah’s life is a testament what is good in American, as is Mr. Daniels; but that should never be confused with greatness... either artistically or morally. It’s too bad Oprah didn’t take a shine to Matt Damon’s “Elysium”... she might have given gravitas to all the fireworks. The 11 year old might have started to wonder about more than explosions.... what if he left the theater and asked his parents: “how come our house isn’t as nice as their house” - now that would be revolutionary.

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