These days, with film criticism, there aren’t many of the good ones left. Too many film reviews now seem like they are product reviews for shampoo or an airplane seat. Very few of them really deliver the kind of in-depth insight film criticism has always been at its best. Perhaps that’s because of the time frame necessary to bolt out reviews now; there just isn’t much time to really construct reviews that are themselves an illuminating read, no matter what their opinion on a film ultimately is. Two such reviews have popped up on Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Though Metacritic rated Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir’s review with a score of 50, I don’t think that quite cuts it. If you miss the praise therein with his review, you really miss everything. Though he debates with himself whether The Butler is a good movie, he calls it “Oscar-worthy” ( it is) and then writes:
But “The Butler” is indisputably an important film and a necessary one, arriving at the end of the summer of Paula Deen and George Zimmerman and the Detroit bankruptcy, a summer that has vividly reminded us that if America’s ancient racial wounds have faded somewhat, they have never healed. For a black filmmaker to tell this fraught and complicated story now, in a mainstream picture with an all-star cast, is significant all on its own. Faulkner’s observation that the past is never dead and isn’t even past has come to sound trite through endless repetition by politicians and journalists, but it speaks to our country in 2013, and to the impact of this movie. And before I wander too far afield, “The Butler” is also a showcase for numerous terrific black actors, including Whitaker, Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, not to mention a fiery and sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated supporting role for Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Gloria.
No such qualification will be necessary for AO Scott’s review in the New York Times. Admittedly, with Daniels’ film, it seems that critics are torn between what they can plainly see is a story well told, and their need to wear their critics hat and point out the obvious flaws. But I dare say an artist today must tumble forth fearlessly, with enough courage to make those mistakes. The last thing any filmmaker should do now is play it safe and part of the reason they do is, in all likelihood, to satisfy the critics. And if there is one group that really doesn’t need satisfying it’s the critics.
But it is important to emphasize that “The Butler,” unlike almost every other movie about race in America, is not primarily about the moral awakening of white people. Nor does it neatly divide whites into snarling bigots and paragons of tolerance. There are certainly instances of raw prejudice and of sincere decency, but the presidents are complex and contradictory creatures. Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) spews racial slurs even as he prepares to sign the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Lincoln. Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) treats the black White House staff more fairly than any of his predecessors — his wife, Nancy (yes, that is Jane Fonda) invites Cecil to a state dinner — but fails to grasp the moral enormity of South African apartheid. They all appreciate Cecil’s service without ever quite seeing him fully as a person. “The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” he is told by supervisors, and he becomes adept at disappearing in plain sight.
Cecil, whose job involves a lot of performance, is a fiercely disciplined actor, and the same can be said of Mr. Whitaker, who demonstrates how gracefully his character walks the line between dignity and servility. But Cecil’s working life as an invisible man in the highest precincts of power is only one layer of this film. It is also interested in showing his other face. And so the camera follows him into the kitchens and back rooms of the White House and revels in his easy, irreverent camaraderie with Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), fellow butlers who become his close friends.
Daniels’ point, of course, echoes what King tells Louis: The traditions of Du Bois and Washington, of self-sacrifice and hard work on one hand, and street protest and political organizing on the other, are not as distinct or disconnected as they may appear. Both have driven a history that isn’t finished yet. While the election of Barack Obama serves as the culmination of this story — and for African-Americans of Cecil Gaines’ generation it was an unimaginable, even millennial victory – in the larger story of America it was an unexpected plot twist whose true consequences remain unknown. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln asked whether a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality would work out, and we still don’t know. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is big, brave, crude and contradictory, very bad in places and very good in others, and every American should see it.
“The Butler” has the historical insight and the generosity of spirit to honor the father and the son equally, and to look with skepticism at each’s point of view. Louis can be courageous and principled, but when his radicalism turns foolish, the film does not hesitate to take his father’s side. Cecil, on the other hand, is blind to the intensity of his son’s convictions and the necessity of the work his son is doing, and his proud patriarchal stubbornness hurts everyone in the family.
But Cecil and Louis, in the end, are doing the same work: they are insisting that their country, at long last, recognize them as full citizens and human beings. Mr. Daniels measures how much of this work has been accomplished, at what cost and with what enemies and allies, and never lets us suppose that it is finished. He dedicates “The Butler” to “the heroes of the civil rights movement” and leaves no doubt that people like the title character — including the unsung maids, Pullman porters, janitors and kitchen workers who toiled far from the White House — belong in that category. We remember those who marched and who stood up for themselves in the face of injustice. It is good to remember that, to paraphrase Milton, they also stand who only wait and serve.
Why are these reviews important and necessary part of the Oscar race? Because unlike many of the mixed reviews on Metacritic, they put the film in its rightful place in film history and, hopefully, Oscar history. These writers, like the best writers in film criticism, recognize the bigger picture. Without that, there really is no point in having film reviews at all since all most of them serve to do is tell us about the reviewer’s peculiarities.
Why is Lee Daniels The Butler Oscar-worthy? Because the Oscars would be cashing a check on the promise of a black director, the only one, that they’ve already honored with a Picture and Director nomination for Precious. But more than that, it is a both an atonement and an acknowledgement for the utter lack of attention paid to African American stories in mainstream Hollywood and at the Oscars. How many films about black characters who play the “magical negro” to the white characters to make the white voters feel better about themselves? Well, here is one that pointedly doesn’t do that.
To me, honoring a film like The Butler is what the Oscars can be best used for. They don’t pick the best film. This has been proven time and time again, as history sifts through the Oscar years. The Godfather I and II, No Country for Old Men — sometimes they get it right. Most of the time, though, they are operating in a haze of Celexa and nostalgia for what was. But that nostalgia rarely includes any other story but those that massage the white psyche. The industry has anointed Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech in the past three years. None of those films will have the kind of cultural impact that The Butler will. Does that matter? Or does a momentary burst of happiness matter more? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that, for the most part, the Oscars are insignificant. They represent power and popularity in Hollywood and both has been dominated by white storytellers and white talent for far too long. It’s time to open the door and take a good look around.