Now that The Butler has taken the box office for the second week in a row, on fewer screens than its competition, the speculative conversation is upon us. In a private email chat with Kris Tapley and Anne Thompson, they said they were certain that Oprah single-handedly opened the film. And that its box-office strength is being driven by her popularity. No doubt Oprah’s name is helping sell tickets, but I think that only tells part of the story. Expand your range of vision beyond the easy answers and you begin to see what other forces might be at play.
It’s simply too easy to say the box office is being driven by Oprah’s rare performance, even with its attendant media buzz.
1) The film’s swan dive into civil rights. Watch Driving Miss Daisy if you want to see how Hollywood has continually marginalized stories about Civil Rights, particularly in regard to African-American involvement. Take Spike Lee’s filmmaking, for instance. It was deemed “too confrontational” and Lee too “angry” at the time. Driving Miss Daisy, and later, The Blind Side and The Help have been more to Hollywood’s liking, at least that’s what the box-office numbers tell us. But, for once, The Butler tells a story about black and white history from the black perspective. It isn’t a story aimed squarely at black audiences; it is a story with crossover appeal. America elected the presidents under whom this butler (Eugene Allen, upon which the Butler is loosely based) served. He witnessed pivotal moments in our history. Movies about those presidents have been made and their stories are the ones we learn in school. But unlike Driving Miss Daisy and The Help, The Butler is history as seen through the lens of black characters. That makes it unique, important and absolutely worth seeing.
2) The undeniable pull of good storytelling. While some critics are lured by simpler screen treatments, efficiently engineered with unadorned form like reinforced concrete and absorbed like the cinematic equivalent of sedatives, more ornate movies with rich fulfilling stories will always draw ticket-buyers, no matter how sprawling and complex. How do potential ticket-buyers know a good story awaits? Some of the more trustworthy critics tell them so (AO Scott). All the same, others like Kenneth Turan have given The Butler less than stellar reviews, and some fall back with faint praise like “it’s worth your time even with its flaws.” But Oprah’s own seal of approval has been a trustworthy sign of good taste for decades now, particularly in her promotion of fine literature. Perhaps Jonathan Franzen had trouble abiding the branding she gave his book, although even he had to eventually acknowledge how much Oprah has enriched popular culture. So yeah, in that way, her word is good enough for many.
3) As antidote to the homogenized fare offered up by studios. A major story this season is how audiences have been reliably turning out for art house fare and unique stories aimed at adults. The usual blockbuster crap we adults ordinarily endure has mostly disappointed. The bigger-and-louder razzle-dazzle has lost its appeal. Many teens would now rather Snapchat each other all night than waste a couple of hours watching formulaic films play out. I could be wrong, but that’s how things are looking summer 2013.
4) Respecting neglected audiences. Serving up meatier subjects is a big reason for this film’s success right now. The same way Lincoln drew in crowds who wanted to witness how history played out and were willing to drive to the multiplex and shell out cold, hard cash — there are people who would never go out to the movies now who are eager to pay to see this film. Not just because of Oprah. But for many Americans, black and white alike, The Butler is the kind of movie mainstream Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore, and frankly, hardly ever has. Spike Lee went there with Do The Right Thing and with Malcolm X but Hollywood never really embraced this perspective, assuming that white audiences couldn’t relate (we know Oscar voters couldn’t). Tapping into black audiences and white audiences is the key here, in my opinion.
5) Timely subject matter. This falls, perhaps, under the Civil Rights category, but there’s no denying The Butler has landed square in the middle of a significant moment. Obama’s presidency drawing out the racists, the Voting Rights Act being stripped by our Supreme Court, blatant voter suppression, a country divided along racial lines. Lee Daniels has said that many young people today really have no idea what went on in this country a half century ago, setting fire to the hateful fuse that burned through so much tragic abuse the past half-century and played out most recently with the Trayvon Martin case. Poor education has many an asshole on Twitter scratching their heads and saying stupid shit like “there’s no racist problem in this country.” The Butler, despite what critics vaguely refer to as flaws, educates. So people don’t want to be educated by a movie? That’s fine. Go see Some Piece of Shit 3 instead. I’m sure you will be more than entertained and by that Happy Meal.
One of the the factors that makes The Butler a force to be reckoned with is Oprah, to be sure, but there’s much more to it than that. This is a situation where the critics matter less than the buzz. This is a natural mutation of the way things evolve, when way too many critics form a kind of “cool kids club” contributes to a Twitter effect that backfires to shut down diverse storytelling in Hollywood. The way to pull out of such a rut is for studios to skip over critics, for audiences to skip over the critics, and eventually the Oscars will skip over critics too. People mostly know a good story when they see one. The box office reflects that.