“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”
― Richard Wright, Black Boy
It’s unsettling to watch the critics weigh in on Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s been clear from the outset that The Butler isn’t a movie meant to cater to critics. In fact, whenever a film strays too far from whatever an insular group of people expect, they tend to dismiss the movies that don’t fit their preconceptions. A lot established critics want to impose demands on filmmakers and to punish those who don’t tow the line. Worse, when they can’t make a filmmaker meet their expectations, there’s an impulse to whip any mustang who can’t be indoctrinated. It’s a strict ritual of processing that begins to resemble a cult. Some critics seem to want to direct the movie themselves and start suggesting ways they would improve it. They want get out of their chairs and go sit in the director’s seat. I always think of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, “But you ARE in that chair, Blanche. You ARE.” They are forever in the dark, the watchers, the observers, the inactive tastemakers. It’s the filmmakers out there putting themselves and their reputations on the line to raise money for projects and then direct the hell out of them. Sometimes they succeed, other times they don’t. But we must never lose sight that directors are the doers and we’re the ones confined to the chair.
Before The Butler was seen by anyone the Twitterers and machismo brigade at Hollywood-Elsewhere were already trying to turn Lee Daniels and his film into a joke. It’s Oscar bait, they said, waving him off with a dismissive hand. They retitled his film for him on Twitter, making jokes about Precious and The Paperboy along the way. For Mr. Daniels, an out gay director whose own life has been a series of stumbling blocks and obstacles, quieting that kind of noise had to be part of the process, part of his evolution to become a storyteller.
Now, Daniels has made a movie that tells our American history from a distinctly different point of view. It’s not a white guy’s interpretation of the black experience told through the eyes of made up black characters — it is told from the point of view of a black man whose own perspective on history illuminates all that remains in the telling. Many white viewers will dismiss (yet again dismiss) Daniels’ pointed focus on the most pivotal era in African-American history (or certainly one of them). Like idle spectators in a theater, most white people in the 1960s would only sit and watch while the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King lost their lives fighting to ensure the rights of black citizens to be treated equally. The oblivious dismissals can still be heard today. “We learned all this in high school. Why do we need to see it retold to us now?”
Daniels, working with screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change), pulls back the curtain and makes us look once again at the path of fairly recent history — that frustrating Möbius strip of events that leads us to right back to the same issues we faced in the 1960s that still confront us today. He’s ripping off the scab of modern day racism, the kind that thrives like bacteria on the underbelly of much of this country. And in this telling of the story, he’s not going over the historical record for the benefit of white audiences, and certainly not critics. No, this time it’s for the young, up-and-coming black citizens of America who might not know what really went down during the era when a black butler served so many white presidents.
The Butler is interesting in that its focus isn’t so much on the personal experience of Cecil Gaines (based loosely on Eugene Allen who served during eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986) — but more for what it says in the bigger picture about how little he progressed in that job, how hypocritical our own government was in treating the black employees compared to the white employees. In this world, we meet two formidable black characters played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr. We also meet John Cusack as Richard Nixon, in one of the best performances he’s ever given. But really, The Butler is about the interplay between the way men behaved in the old black South when they came into direct conflict with the emerging rebellious nature of the next generation.
The juxtaposition between the yasir/nosir method of “coping” grinding up against the Black Panthers — Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach versus Malcolm X — is really what The Butler is all about. It’s also about how, for the most part, Hollywood has all but abandoned this part of history. Shunned by the Academy, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was deemed “too angry” 20 years go. The Oscars have always preferred the less confrontational approach. That’s the interesting dynamic at play in Daniels’ film because he really does dwell in both worlds and seems to have an inner debate raging about who might be right when the smoke clears. Daniels, it turns out, comes out on the side of those who believe that kicking up a fuss is far preferable to staying mute at the injustices suffered and experienced for tha sake of maintaining peace and harmony. That alone makes The Butler one of the most important films to come along in many years.
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was made in 1992. Nominated for nothing more than Best Actor and Costume Design at the Oscars, it went home empty-handed. Just to drive the point home about how ludicrous that was, the forgettable Scent of a Woman scored for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture — and walked away with the better-late-than-never raincheck Oscar for Al Pacino. The other movies nominated that year? Unforgiven (the winner), The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, and Howards End. If you’re looking closely at that you’ll think, well, those movies were just better. But were they really? Better than Malcolm X? Or were they just aimed at the self-satisfied tastes of a specific group of people who could relate better to those white stories? After all, how much atonement can white audiences and critics tolerate before squirming under the weight of it? Whitey guilt was the joke. Mr. Lee, the angry black filmmaker was marginalized, not mainstreamed.
This dynamic between the “angry” black activism thrust forward in Do the Right Thing and the gentle kowtowing of Driving Miss Daisy asking “can’t we all just get along” is explored beautifully in The Butler. It is a confrontation of our collective past and a proposition for a better future, even if sometimes lands some of us in jail.
Daniels’ film isn’t for the hipper-than-thou set. Nor is it for aesthetic-addicted critics who watch movies and scrutinize them the way you would in film school. That’s fine, for what it is. But it can allow for just one kind of film. An overly sentimental movie will never do in that world. But what of audiences? Are they always to be at the mercy of these monocled taste-makers? The Academy mostly has been, but for a few examples. To date, Lee Daniels is still the only black filmmaker to have a Best Picture and Best Director nomination the same year.
The two films of late that have made it into the Best Picture race without the seal of critics approval but with overflowing support from audiences were also black and white stories — albeit told by white filmmakers: The Blind Side and The Help. Last year’s Django Unchained, also by a white filmmaker, also featuring black actors, earned one Oscar for a white actor and another for its white screenwriter. The Blind Side won an Oscar for white talent as well. Boy, if only they could have found a way to reward one of the white actresses in The Help. As much as I loved Lincoln I also have to admit, once again, it’s the white actor Daniel Day-Lewis who won.
So why, readers often wonder (and critics and voters may wonder as well) do we have to sort through the divide between black and white? Aren’t we over that yet? Well, aren’t we? And the answer, when you think about it hard enough, circles back around to this: No. We can do better. We should be doing better. The Butler reminds us of this. It reminds us that even the most well-meaning among us can still accept white predominance as a given in Hollywood and most every other realm of society. It reminds us that a president can invite our honorable butler to the White House dinner but then we see that same president withhold sanctions against South Africa where apartheid raged on.
But even if we sift out what makes Daniels’ film significant to the broader cultural debate, what remains is a very fine film in its own right — a four-hanky movie, entertaining from top to bottom as it gives each character the time needed to evolve on screen. That may make the film a bit long and by the end, you might feel embarrassed each time you have to wipe a tear from your misty eyes. But the one thing you won’t feel is cheated out of any fully drawn character.
The acting in The Butler is brilliant. The standouts are of course Forest Whitaker, who gives a performance even better than the ones he gave in Last King of Scotland and Bird. How he manages to bob in and out of being the butler and a father and a husband is a feat of acting that ought to be held up as the gold standard. Oprah, who will sadly bear the brunt of baked-in skepticism, finds her sexiness and it’s a thing of beauty. She has spent so much of her life relying on her quest to be taken seriously as a thinking woman that we haven’t really gotten a chance to see this side of her. It’s wondrous to behold.
Only a director with Daniels’ confidence could get that kind of performance from Oprah. Why? Why is it so rare to see women in American film portrayed with a healthy attitude about their sexuality? Maybe because Daniels himself doesn’t see an actress and want to fuck her. [Invoking the dread fuck-word in this context is only to snap our attention to the raw fact that Daniels as a gay man holds women up to a different standard of regard that many of his straight director peers]. Maybe because he sees her as a vital woman even at her age. Whatever it is, Oprah is playing a character unlike any we ever see in movies. Also standing out is David Oyelowo as Cecil’s progressive, activist son. He had one singular shining moment in Spielberg’s Lincoln and emerged as one of the more memorable actors in that film. How satisfying to now see what he can really do and where he can go when given a more complex role. Another standout is Yaya Alafia, last seen as Mark Ruffalo’s fuck-buddy in The Kids Are All Right plays another activist alongside Oyelow. As she becomes more extreme, he begins to back away from the more violent protesting for civil rights in the 60s and 70s.
All the suffering many black Americans endured to earn the right to vote — which meant they could sit on juries, which meant they could become a voice to change laws– will have been for nothing if we don’t remember these pivotal moments in our collective history. No filmmaker has ever really told that story with the same scope, and the same framing as Lee Daniels has done here.
The Butler is not for everyone (though I secretly wish it was required viewing for every American), and it will never get the sexy myth-making that takes place online amid parsing by bloggers and critics. It will never be Only God Forgives. But it’s the kind of film worth gathering around the fire for. It’s the kind of film that gives you more than your money’s worth. It’s a story well-worth telling, a story truer in a bigger sense than it is in the smaller details. There’s more to be passed from father to son than the things Louis didn’t want to inherit from his butler father. The better lesson and larger legacy is what Cecil Gaines represents as a native son, an American through and through, taking a different path than those who came before him, accepting the burden of history he had to carry but unafraid to shake off those shackles when the right time finally came.
As as for this film’s director, he must do the same. Lee Daniels can forget the past. Forget the rules. Make new ones. And hope enough people are willing to follow the pathway he’s forging.