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Lee Daniels’ The Butler – Waiting for an Echo

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“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.

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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.

Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said

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71 Comments

  1. julian the emperor
    August 9, 2013

    “Only a director with Daniels’ confidence could get that kind of performance from Oprah. Why? Maybe because he himself doesn’t need to want to fuck her.”

    Er, ok…
    I don’t know if I find that sentence strangely fascinating (even refreshing) or utterly repulsive…the jury’s still out.

    Btw, I must be among the holier-than-thou clique because I cannot stomach Daniels’ films.

    I guess you are right though, that this is the type of movie that many critics are looking forward to put down (based on Daniels’ resume they have every good reason to), so let me just say; I’m slightly intrigued by your endorsement. Slightly. I like to see bad movies, so it’s a win-win either way.

  2. Aaron B
    August 9, 2013

    “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 high art. That’s fine, for what it is. But it can allow for just one kind of film. An overly sentimental one will never do in that world.”

    Completely agree with this. I love Terrence Malick and PTA, but I equally love melodrama and films that affect me emotionally. Both kinds of films are just tugging at different strings.

  3. applesauce
    August 9, 2013

    “Only a director with Daniels’ confidence could get that kind of performance from Oprah. Why? Maybe because he himself doesn’t need to want to fuck her.”

    This is also the part of the review that stood out to me and not in a good way. This is repulsive and an extremely disappointing view on how and why certain actresses give powerful perfomances in certain films. I mean, can’t we credit good performances to sheer talent and dedication to the craft as opposed to an actress’ fuckability? Utterly disappointing take.

  4. Christophe
    August 9, 2013

    Sweet! I find it mighty interesting that in the same year we have three different movies in three slightly different genres based on three real-life black characters living in three different centuries and facing three different kinds of racial injustice:
    - 12 years a slave / Solomon Northup / 19th century / historical drama / slavery
    - Lee Daniels’ The Butler / Eugene Allen / 20th century / melodrama / segregation
    - Fruitvale Station / Oscar Grant / 21st century / urban drama / prejudice
    One can only hope we’ll get the chance to read a further comparative analysis of these three movies and their treatment of racial issues in the future… wink wink.

  5. Chris L.
    August 9, 2013

    Malcolm X is indeed a magnificent film, one that deepens and grows with every passing year. What I’ve seen from Daniels thus far seems well short of that level of artistry, but I’m by no means closing the door on his new film. (When I arrive at the box office, btw, I’ll request a ticket simply for “The Butler.” Sorry, Warner Bros.)

    Let’s also remember that these movie categories aren’t always mutually exclusive. The most finely wrought, “film-schooled” work can also have a direct and searing emotional impact when it comes from a clear and strong personal voice.

  6. Kevin Klawitter
    August 9, 2013

    I’m glad this movie has turned out to be so different from what I expected. When it was first announced, I thought it was going to be some sort of chamber piece, a look at the lives of the Presidents through the eyes of the butler. But knowing the Oyelowo character has a considerable focus and the movie is a thoughtful look at the contrast of the different methods of how racial equality has been pursued makes me considerably more excited to see it.

    Still, I have to ask, what did you think of the actors who played the Presidents? How would you rank them?

  7. CarsonT
    August 9, 2013

    Django won two Oscars, Supporting and Screenplay. Both white, but I think their victories affirm what that film was trying to do.

  8. Devon
    August 9, 2013

    A bad or mediocre movie is just that. The Paperboy is unwatchable, at best a camp piece of trash, so it’s not like there haven’t been warning signs. Maybe Lee Daniels is not a very good filmmaker, and it has nothing to do with gender or race. And Oprah is polarizing – not an actress, not loved by all.

  9. August 9, 2013

    “Maybe because he himself doesn’t need to want to fuck her.” This is a repulsive and an extremely disappointing view on how and why certain actresses give powerful perfomances

    It would be easy to drop that line. Easy to avoid ruffling the fur of any sensitive readers who might wince.

    But anybody who thinks there’s no sexual undercurrent lurking in movies doesn’t know much about the long history of directors with overt fetishes for their female stars. Anybody who doesn’t acknowledge the sometimes itchy chemistry we all feel in portrayals of women in pictures, is not considering a major component in the interaction the between male artist and female artists’ model — and, for that matter, doesn’t even understand much about how men regard women, period.

    I mean, can’t we credit good performances to sheer talent and dedication to the craft as opposed to an actress’ fuckability?

    You mean the like the credit the Academy gave to Emmanuella Riva for her sheer talent and dedication to the craft?

    The remark about Daniels relationship to Winfrey takes nothing away from her talent. It’s an observation of the way gay directors can relate to actresses as opposed to a very different way some straight directors like Hitchcock shoot Tippi Hedron or the way Russell often uses Lawrence as a bouncy spandex box of jiggles.

    Please stop gasping at the thought that hundreds of directors might have had the hots for some of their stars. It’s a fact that’s worth noting here because it’s a pressure Oprah didn’t have to deal with from Lee Daniels, More importantly it’s an unfettered freedom Daniels gave her that lets Oprah seize ownership of her sexuality instead of getting it filtered through a director’s sticky-fingered lens or, for example, crude close-ups of her cleavage and ass.

  10. Applesauce
    August 9, 2013

    I’m not even talking about the Oscars but women who give fine performances (rewarded or not) which can be attributed to their talent alone. To attribute an actress’ fine performance solely to her director’s fetishes/ sexual fantasies is just plain wrong.

  11. PJ
    August 9, 2013

    Lee Daniels doesn’t drool over Winfrey. But he sure did drool over Zac Effron.

    The clip of Zac in his underwear dancing with Nicole has gone viral.

    “It was Nicole’s last day, and it started raining, and I thought it was beautiful. I started crying. God told me to play a song. It was a tearful moment for all of us. Then I was like, “Zac, your dick print is showing, and your ass is showing, and this is the reason why people are going to say I did this on purpose.” Did I? I don’t know.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/isoul-harris/lee-daniels-the-paperboy-zac-efron_b_1936631.html

  12. August 9, 2013

    I’m not talking about Oscars either. Emmanuelle Riva is an example of a women who gave a performance that wasn’t appreciated by a lot of people, not just the Oscars.

    To attribute an actress’ fine performance solely to her director’s fetishes/ sexual fantasies is just plain wrong.

    Who said “Solely”? — you did. I didn’t. Sasha didn’t.

    You misunderstand me entirely. Sorry the line bugs you. I think it’s great. You’re welcome to say why it bugs you. I’m just telling you why it’s think it’s a valid observation.

  13. August 9, 2013

    Exactly. And that’s either unfortunate or it isn’t — depending on each individual’s response, right? At least Daniels is honest about asking if “maybe” there was something about his sexuality that compelled him to film it that way.

    Sasha also uses the word “maybe” too in the line that’s raising eyebrows — because art and psychology are not absolutes.

  14. steve50
    August 9, 2013

    Sasha, I haven’t seen a guarded, qualified and apologetic rave like this since Roger Ebert’s 1968 review of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

    “Yes, there are serious faults in Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but they are overcome by the virtues of this delightfully old-fashioned film. It would be easy to tear the plot to shreds and catch Kramer in the act of copping out. But why? On its own terms, this film is a joy to see, an evening of superb entertainment.

    It was one of his weakest most cowardly reviews. Who cares what others think if the film touched you – just man-up and say as much, without the caveats.

    While there’s no blueprint for a successful film, there are some of us who simply don’t care for Daniel’s past efforts and therefore get a bit punchy at the thought him helming a Ship of Fools/Orient Express take on the civil rights movement. It has nothing to do with his race or sexual orientation, and since life is a bumpy road for most of us outside the spotlight, that doesn’t cut any slack, either. The ONLY thing that counts is what’s onscreen.

    Yes, the filmmakers are the ones taking the chances and we are only the watchers, but we are also the destination for the final product. It will be judged against not only what the filmmaker has given us previously, but against what others have shown us. We’ll either buy it, or we won’t.

    Ebert was not alone in his love of GWCTD – it was a huge hit. His defensiveness was tota;lly unnecessary. Was it a good movie? Sure. Was it a classic film? Um, nope. The same may happen with The Butler.

    So I went back and re-read your review, skipping the qualifiers and defensive stuff (didn’t care for the “fuckability” ref, but whatever). There’s a good review hidden in there, so I definitely intend to see The Butler, despite swearing that I wouldn’t.

  15. August 9, 2013

    I don’t see the slightest hint of any apology in this review. Sasha seems to me unrestrained in her admiration and enthusiastic about how much she loved it.

    Is it because the review points out how some critics and some movie-goers resist movies like this? In fact, beyond any need to actively resist movies like this, some people are just plain resistant and untouched by movies like this. That’s a fact. Why not acknowledge it?

    But, to me anyway, that doesn’t make Sasha’s own feelings come across as guarded.

  16. applesauce
    August 9, 2013

    It bugs me because it steals away from the efforts of actresses who want to give fine performances – at least that’s how I interpreted it. May not be Sasha’s intention at all but that’s how it came across – at least to me.

  17. August 9, 2013

    Some thoughts:

    1) It’s true there are a lot of bad critics, or bloggers, or whatever you wanna call ‘em. I really try, in my writing, to discuss mainly the films I love, because I prefer talking positively about things I love over tearing down things that are just not my cup of tea–and that’s really how I feel about most movies I don’t like, or even despise: that there might be something there for someone, but not for me. However, on the podcast I do, when I do discuss something a film I don’t like, or one that I like but has problems, I do tend to be quite blunt. And I do try and suggest ways the film could have been improved (if I care, that is). Nothing wrong with that; it’s a form of expressing exactly what’s wrong with a picture. You’re correct in saying that some film commentators need to get up off their butts and direct or participate in the making of movies; doing so DOES sharpen one’s senses. I know this from having made my own films, TV shows, having programmed a film festival, and having works on other people’s films (mainly as an actor and editor). But I don’t think filmmaking experience is absolutely necessary for the critical line of work–some have just decided to be writers about film, and this is okay; this is no reason we should denigrate their opinions. The real question is, are their opinions (1) intelligently and fairly arrived at, (2) interestingly expressed, and (3) informed in all aspects. This is where a few (like you, Sasha) shine, and where many fall.

    2) I’ve had discussions with a fellow critic at the NYFF, where we talked about the surly manner most film critics display. We characterized it as them sitting in their theater seat, before the movie, with their arms crossed, and sternly saying “Okay, impress me, genius!” They watch movies with a chip on their shoulder. Where my friend and I, we said that we go into every movie expecting something great, and only when and if things begin to turn for the worse do our judgment centers kick in. I think these other critics are just ready to be mean, because that’s what the internet has become–a mean place. I guess it’s more fun for some to write a negative review, and to make fun of something. I don’t get it. For me, it’s like going to a wake. And NOT an Irish one…

    3) As for THE BUTLER, I too have to say that I’ve been rather unimpressed with what I’ve seen from it. Yes, I’ve made a little fun of it on MOVIE GEEKS UNITED (certainly not of its subject matter, but my perception of its treatment, mainly for the casting of the presidents…which, in the photos alone–and divorced from the actual movie, mind you–don‘t paint a very promising outlook). I’m also not really impressed with the trailer, which makes it looks like the sort of overbaked biopic that I don’t really care for. Still, as your essay pointed out, I could be wrong (and, of course, I will see the film–Daniels has become a filmmaker whose work any serious film lover has to see). It is an occupational hazard for a film writer to dislike movies that portray what we see as clichés, when in actuality, for the younger audience, this could be the first time they’ve encountered these tropes, and so for them, it’s brilliant. In that dichotomy, we really underline the reason why critics in general are sometimes seen as horribly out-of-touch with the masses. But, again, there’s no reason we should be IN touch: criticism is not really about the pure veracity of one’s opinions of a work, or its membership in a cabal of like-minded assessments. It’s really about one person’s ability to express an opinion in an entertaining, informative, articulate, and educated manner. As with all art forms, there are many who cannot rise to this level, and the sorry thing is that, on the internet, it’s becoming easier for those who are miserable at this art to have their voices heard by more people than those who more accomplished writers. And this, again, is nothing new, in the practice of any art form.

    4) I like PRECIOUS (mainly because of its performances, though I don’t think I would have given it all the Oscar nominations it eventually got, simply because it wasn’t among my top 10 of that year). Still, a very good film. THE PAPERBOY is sweaty, trashy pulp, and that’s all it set out to be, and that makes it a success of sorts, even though it’s not really my thing. THE HELP was an underrated movie, for sure, even with all the attention it got–that was a film with integrity, and I liked how it framed the struggle for equal rights in this country. I thought it worked, and was moving and inventive. As for MALCOLM X, that’s a movie I admire and want to like a little more than I did. The first hour is where the major problems are; the last two are pretty well done, and I agree I’d rather see it on the Best Pic nominees instead of either SCENT OF A WOMAN (execrable) or A FEW GOOD MEN (kind of a bore). However, I would posit that UNFORGIVEN indeed was the best movie of that year, and I bristle at any sort of implication that says that if you aren’t over-the-moon about MALCOLM X (or THE BUTLER, for that matter), then there’s something perhaps morally wrong with, or at least partially blinding you. In 1992, there were a bunch of movies that were better than MALCOLM X: Unforgiven, Howards End, The Long Day Closes, The Crying Game (actually released in 92), Glengarry Glen Ross, Brother’s Keeper, Reservoir Dogs, Baraka, Hard Boiled, A Midnight Clear, Bad Lieutenant, The Player, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Passion Fish, The Story of Qui Ju, Deep Cover, One False Move, Brother’s Keeper, Lessons of Darkness. MALCOLM X is certainly more important than some of those movies…but better? I dunno…it’s debatable. Sometimes, it falls into that same lumbering trap that so many other biopics fall into–it’s just too bloated and reductive, with a cornpone edge to it that, luckily, in this case, starts to fall away as the movie progresses. I admire more than love it (though I do love the lead performance, and also Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad). At any rate, I have a feeling that this is how I’m gonna feel about THE BUTLER, but I’m keeping my mind open. (By the way, one of the mistakes that biopics–including MALCOLM X or, say, RAY–make is that, when they do a birth-to-death story, they get overloaded with information and you sort of lose the essence of the subject; biopics always do better when they examine only a short time in a person’s life.)

    5) In my case, I love black film, but I tend not to like it when I feel it’s being watered down for some marketing or budgetary or even race-based reason. I really prefer the classics: Killer of Sheep, Eve’s Bayou, Nothing But A Man, Do The Right Thing, Mandabi, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Cooley High, Menace II Society, Sidewalk Stories, Hoop Dreams, Bird, Round Midnight, The Watermelon Man, Pinky, Imitation of Life, To Sleep With Anger, Daughters of the Dust, Sankofa, City of God, A Raisin in the Sun, Greased Lightning, Blue Collar, Shaft, Hustle and Flow, Sounder, Malcolm X (the documentary), King: From Memphis to Montgomery, Moolaade, Fresh, Boyz N The Hood…that sort of thing. I think every one of those films (even though a few were directed by people of another race) is a masterwork (and we’re not even getting into those drive-in movies from the 70s…those films some like to term blaxploitation, but which I look at as being just another arm of black film). At any rate, if I were advising someone young and curious about the black experience, all around the world, I would recommend that they watch these movies–even one or two of them–over recommending something that I felt was substandard or really, not a great movie, but the best that we have available that’s new.

    Anyway, I liked your article, and am glad you’re positive on THE BUTLER. I hope to be so, too, but if it doesn’t happen, it just doesn’t happen. I just felt compelled to comment on some observations you expressed.

  18. steve50
    August 9, 2013

    OK, “apologetic” is probably a bit off and, while I get Sasha’s feeling for the film are honest – and she always is, the framing of the review within expectation of harsh criticism, previous Daniels/Oprah-bashing, and the importance of the subject matter clouded the praise a bit for me.

    From what I’m reading (not just Sasha), I’m getting the feeling that The Butler is loveable, in spite of itself. That’s fine, but the fact that it states that it may not be a “critic’s movie” immediately send up a red flag that something is a bit off, so be warned.

  19. SallyinChicago
    August 9, 2013

    Am I missing something? The movie is trending 75-80 on Rottentomatoes; no?

  20. August 9, 2013

    I don’t know if I find that sentence strangely fascinating (even refreshing) or utterly repulsive…the jury’s still out.

    That kind of language is always a jolt to see in print, even for those of us say ‘fuck’ 55 times a day.

    Personally, I enjoy how it sharply spikes the paragraph. It was Sasha’s idea to add a phrase or two as a cushion around that hardcore line — to help explain more gently the stroke behind the poke.

  21. Bryce Forestieri
    August 9, 2013

    LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER!!!!

    ————————————off topic————————————–

    Ever since I saw the new PHILOMENA trailer this morning, and for several reasons it triggered a desire in me to retrospect a bit about 2006…As I’ve stated on here, at least half a dozen times, I’m a big fan of THE QUEEN, Stephen Frears’ best film. And, although Helen Mirren’s performance is as masterful as it gets, I’ve always felt that Judy Dench in NOTES ON A SCANDAL gave the best performance by an actress that year. Although successful, NOTES is still for my money a pretty underrated flick from 2006. So back then I would have gone with these gals:

    Best Actress

    Judi Dench – NOTES ON A SCANDAL
    Ivana Baquero – PAN’S LABYRINTH
    Laura Dern – INLAND EMPIRE
    Penelope Cruz – VOLVER
    Kate Dickie – RED ROAD

    Best Supporting Actress

    Carmen Maura – VOLVER
    Cate Blanchett – NOTES ON A SCANDAL
    Julianne Moore – CHILDREN OF MEN
    Shareeka Epps – HALF NELSON
    Martina Gedeck – THE LIVES OF OTHERS

  22. Giacinto
    August 9, 2013

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fr88sVLxVeo Philomena trailer, starring Judi Dench

  23. Kane
    August 9, 2013

    Lenny Kravitz gave a great performance in Precious. Matthew McCounaghey gave a great performance in The Paperboy. Is it safe to say Lee Daniels wanted to fuck them?

  24. Kane
    August 9, 2013

    I read further down and it seems you basically answered my question.

  25. superkk
    August 9, 2013

    the film currently has an 80% on RT. whats the point of this article again?lol

  26. JP
    August 9, 2013

    Christoph Waltz is brilliant in Django but the fact that Samuel L. Jackson wasnt even in the radar for the nomination really speaks volumes to me. For me, he was the standout of the film. But there are some performances that are so much uncomfortable that the media and people feel reluctant to praise. He played and african american that was in favor of slavery and that hated the idea of african americans fighting against it. A character uncomfortable for both african american and white.

  27. August 9, 2013

    QT’s soul is black.

  28. rouge en rouge
    August 9, 2013

    YAAAASSSS SASHA, YOU BETTER GO IN AND LET HAVE. PROFOUNDLY BEAUTIFUL PIECE. YOUR BEST YET IN MY OPINION. YOUR DISSECTION OF RACE SHOULD BE HIGHLY APPLAUDED.

  29. August 9, 2013

    I have every intention of seeing this but I just haven’t been making it to the theater much this year. I’ve only seen about a dozen movies.

    I have no sense if the movie is good or not from trailers, etc. I loved PRECIOUS. But I just saw THE PAPERBOY this week. Egads. What a hot mess. And the messiest was John Cusack. Not thrilled that he’s being used again. Never was a fan. Not sure how he’s endured.

    I’m also still not a fan of handicapping a movie’s chances in the Oscar race by assuming some racism will play a part. I think every film should be judged on its quality. Since Lee Daniels and Oprah and Forest Whitaker are involved, it seems like the Academy might be able to just judge it that way. They like them.

  30. August 9, 2013

    Thinking about Jackson’s snub last year with some distance on it, I’m wondering if he doesn’t suffer from the Tom Cruise problem. There are those actors who make so much money with their films that it seems they can’t catch a break award-wise. It’s as if they have enough, and the awards people think they don’t need Oscars. I mean jealousy again. It occurs to me now that SLJ should fall into that category. I didn’t think of him when we were talking about the subject recently, but he fits the bill.

  31. August 9, 2013

    christiannnw, thanks. Those extra words have been removed and a few missing ones added. Thanks for reminding me to double-check.

  32. August 9, 2013

    Just to make the article better and more accurate, I’d like to add that, in its last paragraphs, it leaves the final O off of David Oyelowo’s name.

  33. August 9, 2013

    Ahhh, it’s so easy to make a typo…How I wish Awards Daily had an edit feature on the comments section…

  34. applesauce
    August 9, 2013

    Well, when you said, “You mean the like the credit the Academy gave to Emmanuella Riva for her sheer talent and dedication to the craft?” – you were referring to the Oscars right? This is in reference to the Academy not giving the Oscar to Riva last year.

    Not a lot of people have seen Amour which is why not a lot of people were able to appreciate her performance. But those who did saw her performance loved it – myself included and I also thought that it was the best of the year.

    However, reducing certain performances – such as those of Jennifer Lawrence to director’s fantasies – is not right because underneath the tight clothing is a heart of a performance – may not be the best of the year – but a good performance nonetheless.

  35. August 9, 2013

    Thanks!

  36. August 9, 2013

    Don’t worry, I can fix that too :)

  37. Kansiov
    August 9, 2013

    … with an average score of 6.7…

  38. Chritine
    August 9, 2013

    This. Sam Jackson was the standout for me as well. It too baffled me to no end that he wasn’t indeed even considered a potential nominee.

  39. Mikeyone
    August 10, 2013

    Just to throw my hat into the ring but The Crying Game is better than Malcolm X as is Unforgiven. Django unchained deserved neither of the oscars it won. This great piece of black film making is written by a white guy. All of this is irrelevant though.

    I don’t watch movies because of them being black movies or white movies, I watch them because of the story. I am going to see this film because of the story. Nothing else.

    To codify a film because of the colour of the directors skin is complete and utter nonsense.

  40. Josh
    August 10, 2013

    Why are you looking at Rotten Tomatoes? Metacritic is a better gauge. Yes it’s at 80% on RT but only ten reviews are in. Metacritic only has seven, but the average is 62/100 with only three positive and four mixed.

  41. August 10, 2013

    The way I took it, the reference to Malcolm X wasn’t intended to promote it as the best film of 1992. Just better than most of the BP nominees that year. Better than A Few Good Men. Better than Scent of a Woman. In my opinion Malcolm X is better than Howard’s End, although that’s a tough call because I’m really fond of Howard’s End.

    My favorite movie of 1992 is The Player and my favorite movie of 1992 by a black director is One False Move.

    I don’t codify films, and I don’t think this review does.

    When we talk about films directed by black filmmakers around here it’s always on the basis of individual achievement — not as some sort of codification process.

    In 1992 two black directors should have been nominated for an Oscar and instead there were none. If Carl Franklin had been Oscar-nominated in 1992 maybe he would’ve faced fewer obstacles and made more than 3 feature films over the next 2 decades.

    Instead we have esteemed Oscar nominee, Martin Brest, director of Gigli.

    That’s why it’s not utter nonsense to promote the best work of directors who aren’t white. That’s not codifying. That’s just promoting diversity. Just trying to prevent another Gigli.

    Now stop making me use this nonsensical word ‘codify.’ Every time I type ‘codify’ I feel like a complete and utter dickweed.

  42. Alec
    August 10, 2013

    I loved Malcolm X and have watched it over ten times since I saw it on video in 93. I have no problem with it not winning best picture, but am still shocked it wasn’t a bigger player at the Oscars. It should have been up for best picture ,director, adapted screenplay, score and I would have liked to see Bassett and Lindo or Freeman nominated in the supporting categories. Most biopics get that treatment at the Oscars and I think X is probably among the best of them.

    Nice mention of Carl Franklin. I am still sad that Devil in a Blue Dress didn’t connect with audiences. I wanted to see more adventures with Easy and Mouse. Speaking of being robbed, how wasn’t Cheadle nominated in 95 for that performance?

  43. Jpns Viewer
    August 10, 2013

    To relate my observation, as well as comment of sort, to the article: I have read the first few paragraphs and then jumped through to the whole set of the final five (for the time being, ones below Oprah’s pic). I’ll be back for the whole content later.

    “The acting … is brilliant.”
    “The standouts are of course Forest Whitaker, ….”
    “[Oprah’s thesp effort (my words)] … wondrous to behold.”
    “Also standing out is David Oyelowo….”
    “…. (though I secretly wish it was required viewing for every American), ….”

    Sasha, thank you very much for your passion for this very piece: The Butler.

    Apparently, you love the film or mostly the integral part to its core.
    (On sidenote: HE’s Wells seems at least to like it as well — as in the context of the film seemingly having gone beyond his preconceptions.)

    Un-uselessly to point out the obvious: I need to see it for myself to believe it. That said, for now, it looks to me as if a bad trailer might as well turn out to be something spectacular.

    Again, [imitating Arnie’s Teutonic accent] Ahhl bee baach for the whole content, as well as other readers’ comments, later. : )

  44. Mik
    August 10, 2013

    I think that if this year isnt a good one at the Oscars for black film-makers (at least in the nominations if not in awards), I think people are going to lose faith altogether in the Oscar process. The Butler, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, Walk to Freedom etc. All should be there or thereabouts come awards season. I think its historically been easier for the Academy to overlook because there’s only been one or two genuine contenders from black film-makers, but it seems almost impossible to ignore this year.

    Wonder whether Tarantino will take credit for this influx of quality black film-maker dominated films like he insanely took credit for single-handedly raising Hollywood’s attention to the slave trade last year for the first time. Glad there is going to be some better quality, less racially troubling examples this year.

  45. August 10, 2013

    +1
    Thanks Mik
    Love every word of this.

  46. Bob Burns
    August 10, 2013

    thanks, Sasha, for your writing about race and racism.

    and for your comments about the (boring to me) conventions of film school/film critic expectations.

  47. Jpns Viewer
    August 10, 2013

    Ryan,

    I’ve just checked my #valid# e-mail address — #the one attached to this avatar# — and couldn’t find your message. [Sorry, but I think your message was being directed to my old, defunct e-mail address, the one with my favorite, red-faced avatar; it would never reach my inbox either (not that I’ve blocked your e-mail address or anything).]

    Anyway, as an AD user, I’m going to keep using the old avatar, one with its red face yet equipped with the now defunct e-mail address, because somehow I feel emotionally attached to it — plus it is easier to spot.

    *signed out*

  48. Jpns Viewer
    August 10, 2013

    The e-mail address shown herewith is genuine but invalid.

    *signed out*

  49. g
    August 10, 2013

    I am so happy for my David Oyelowo! I have been a fan of his from his MI5 days, and to see him in Lincoln, Middle Of Nowhere, etc. I am so excited to see this!

  50. August 10, 2013

    Nice observation! I’m sure that’ll stick in my mind through the year.

  51. Bill
    August 10, 2013

    But Sasha you’ve stated in the past that you are a fan of Scent of a Woman

    So I don’t get the sudden criticism

  52. August 10, 2013

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Jackson’s character was disturbing – a devil in a fool’s cloth. Both Quentin’s script and Jackson’s performance turned him into the real villain of the film (DiCaprio’s character seemed to be so easily cheated…).

    Making things worse, Waltz not only was not the best actor in the film but also he was a CO-LEAD!

  53. August 10, 2013

    The only headscratcher of this piece for me is the Only God Forgives reference. It seems as if the implication is that critics would trash The Butler but praise OGF, because it has cooler aesthetics? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Only God Forgives was widely panned by critics, and having seen it, I thought it was one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year. Meanwhile, Butler is doing pretty good, practically doubling the score of OGF on both RT and MC. So where’s the fire?

  54. August 10, 2013

    Provocative and dead-on piece, Sasha. I completely agree about Daniels getting such a sexy and magnetic performance out of Oprah. I was gobsmacked by how exciting her performance was.

    And you’re theory about why is certainly worth a think. But too often those who these criticisms are directed at feel threatened. Wouldn’t it be nice if they just decided to count to ten and actually consider the idea?

  55. August 10, 2013

    yes, please keep your trademark avatar. I forgot about your other email address.

  56. therealmike
    August 10, 2013

    “Only a director with Daniels’ confidence could get that kind of performance from Oprah. Why? Maybe because he himself doesn’t need to want to fuck her.”

    What the what?! That´s actually pretty sexist….

  57. Gerd
    August 10, 2013

    Now that you mention it kudos to Lisa Cholodenko for casting an african american fuck buddy for Mark Ruffalo in TKAAR. More of such casting decisions please. black or white or whatever, Yaya purely as an actress fit the part of a sexy cool waitress with a hint of intellectual to Ruffalo’s hipster chef. A decent part in a great movie.

  58. The Jack
    August 10, 2013

    Sasha also mentioned in the past that she was a fan of Argo, so take it with a pinch of salt.

  59. Rudi Mentär
    August 10, 2013

    Wonderfull article.

    I love that a black and gay director is making movies where he can put his heart in. Gender, race and sexuality of a filmmaker shouldn`t matter. The movie should speak for itself. But sometimes it matters and when a filmmaker, like Daniel, who has something to say finds a voice in the art he does, it`s perfect. Precious was perfect. It is about real human beings and I’m alwys thrilled by a director who is able get such incredible (realistic) performances out of his actors. In the end it always depends on the characters and so I know that I am going to like The Butler as well.

  60. Rudi Mentär
    August 10, 2013

    Btw, this might be interesting. It is a user comment on the article about the film on forbes.com:

    “Elaine Brown (20 hours ago)
    As a former leader of the Black Panther Party and co-author of the forthcoming biography of Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), that is, a partisan in the powerful efforts for change that are the real centerpiece of Daniels’ film, I thank you for acknowledging in your review what this bootlicking director and his acting counterparts, including Winfrey, have covered up in pandering to racists to make money from the blood that bought them passage to Hollywood: “The film errs by simplistically villainizing the Black Panther movement and needlessly villainizing Oyelowo’s girlfriend on a dime…The constant push-pull of the film is the classic choice between waiting for change versus advocating for change….” Daniels, Winfrey and the other obsequious black participants in this shameful production, made more shameful in the wake of the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, by Winfrey’s recent apologia for Paula Deen’s racism and Daniels’ recent assertion that whites can still love blacks though calling us “niggers,” have advanced a concept even the most unctuous Uncle Toms and House Negroes during 250 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow never uttered: that it is better to serve Massah than to oppose him. If it were worth the effort, I would urge a black boycott of this film. In the tenor of the times, there are more pressing issues to address in an America entrenched in racism.—Would there were time and place, however, to render unto Oprah what is hers for slapping a “Black Panther” in Daniels’ dishonorable film.”

    Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2013/08/09/review-lee-daniels-the-butler-is-thoughtful-moving-and-mournful/

  61. August 10, 2013

    Thought Experiment:

    What if it’s possible to like two different movies and still believe that one of them is much better than the other one?

  62. August 10, 2013

    Would there were time and place, however, to render unto Oprah what is hers for slapping a “Black Panther” in Daniels’ dishonorable film.”

    First of all, I doubt if Oprah has ever slapped a Black Panther.

    But aside from this person’s inability to differentiate between Oprah and a character in a movie, it’s worth wondering what sort of punishment Elaine Brown would like to see rendered unto Oprah Winfrey for pretend-slapping another actor in a movie.

    Would Black Panther justice entail another pretend slap as penalty? Or a real slap? Or something worse?

    What Black Panther fate awaits Samuel L Jackson for his role in Django? Castration? Or just the seething ominous threat of it?

  63. CMG
    August 10, 2013

    I cannot abide to Danny Strong getting away with mediocre screenplays. The LBJ segment was deplorable, bordering on Cinderella Man’s portrayal of Max Baer as an non-repenting killer in the ring with an added body count.

    Sasha, I first heard your rave on The Butler with Jeff Wells. I hate agreeing with Wells- he did in fact call my hometown Siberia and I still had to agree with him that The Place Beyond the Pines was poor. That was hard. But his criticism of the portrayal of LBJ was right on. Yeah, I get that Johnson was a Texan who comes off very TMI to his staff members but he also first worked as a school teacher in an area where most of the student body were black and Mexican. That was before he ever got into politics. LBJ and race is probably one of the least complicated aspects of that very complicated man and what Danny Strong did to him in that script should get called out by the Johnson library, Robert Caro, and anybody with a sense of history. And Sasha’s quote to Johnson about the Great Society that had him say the N-word is from Ronald Kessler’s dumb book (Kessler has written for right-wing sites and that quote is widely used by right-wingers) when a much more credited LBJ quote had more nuanced, more clear-eyed view of the civil rights act which was that he knew he had lost the South forever with that choice. Lawd, give me the strength to adapt all of Caro’s LBJ books into a mini-series and get it produced with Tommy Lee Jones still alive to star.

    I am just sick of the mythic Kennedy BS that Hollywood loves to do. Screw JFK and his overrated Presidency, especially when it is to lower the work of his successor who actually try to do things domestically about race and poverty. But let’s move on from this LBJ rant and get back to this review.

    Sasha, I may be a film geek who likes Only God Forgives but I also love movies on history, politics, and race that is unafraid to take the audience for smart. This was not it. The Butler fails due to a very poor, dishonest, bordering on Forrest Gump in the omnipresence of its characters of a screenplay when it did not have to be that way. Let me also leave a disclaimer that I thought both Shadowboxer and The Paperboy were trashy, pulpy fun that dealt with race in a far less constraining way than either Precious or this does. Let Daniels fly his freak flag but oh dear he needs to stay away from movies that rely a lot on the history and context of the time period.

    I am sure Sasha knows Lee Daniels is gay (and my how pervy his camera-work was on Efron and McConaughey in The Paperboy) but I am not sure what to make of needing to make that reference to Oprah through the male gaze of a director when one involves Gay Icon and gay director. I mean, I always took Daniels for a dime-store Almodovar and what I am getting from that performance is something seen in camp for DECADES that does not need the, ‘Hey, she’s looking fab and not because the director has got a boner!’ disclaimer.

    This movie is a mess so it is probably fitting that this review and conversation, including this barn-burner of a comment of my own making, are also very messy. JFC, Lee Daniels, I am not even sure he is a good filmmaker but he can make critical circles dizzy.

  64. CMG
    August 10, 2013

    Yeesh, Ryan, Martin Brest also directed Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run which are fine popcorn movies. And if you looked into the story of Gigli, it was taken out of his hands.

  65. CMG
    August 10, 2013

    I really was not in the pro-Django Unchained group because, it was pretty messy in its presentation of whether or not it wanted to be a gritty, truthful presentation of the South or if it wanted to go full-blown Spaghetti Western with pre-KKK people for comic relief (which too many smart people really thought was the KKK, a terror group created in post-Civil War Reconstruction aka After Slavery), Mandingo Fighting, and taking from the classics of the hero journey with a black hero. I appreciate its existence although I wish there was a 12 Years a Slave type of movie that recently was made before Django Unchained. That said, acting like Tarantino’s disservice was because he was white and gave Christoph Waltz (a non-American white male who was playing a foreigner in the movie as in no White Americans can really attach themselves to his ‘good deed’ as he is not one of us’) seems wrong. Goodness, this is a man who gave Pam Grier a comeback vehicle as a titular lead when she was middle-age and also gave her an interracial romance. It’s not his fault that Harvey Weinstein moved Waltz to supporting and failed to campaign for either Jackson or DiCaprio properly.

    It’s weird to complain at what Django Unchained did at the Oscars anyway. It won 2, neither of which were sure things going into the night.

  66. Tonnny
    August 11, 2013

    http://tiny.pl/hbbf7 another controversial interview with Lee Daniels

  67. SallyinChicago
    August 11, 2013

    I’ve never known Samuel L. Jackson to “campaign” for an award, have you? Sometimes that makes a difference.

  68. tr
    August 11, 2013

    The reviews for The Butler are good enough that this article holds pretty much no weight whatsoever. Not every movie about women or minorities is a victim of something, Sasha. Critics don’t like over-sentimentality. You know this. In fact, you’ve hated other movies for it.

    And yet, despite The Butler’s sometimes maudlin tendencies, the critics are so far behind it for the most part. So I don’t see the point of any whining.

  69. Chance
    August 13, 2013

    “The stroke behind the poke.”

    Ryan, let’s consummate this. Stat.

  70. Chance
    August 13, 2013

    “art and psychology are not absolutes…”

    Ryan, I love you.

  71. R. Kurt Osenlund
    August 16, 2013

    Nice. I’m very passionate about this one too. My piece on Lee Daniels for Filmmaker:

    http://filmmakermagazine.com/75669-how-lee-daniels-made-the-butler-his-own/

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