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By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Tuesday, August 27, 2013.


Let me just say this at the onset. It would almost be worth an exorbitant movie ticket to see Oprah in just about any movie, rocking a throwback catsuit, shimmying along to Soul Train, telling a no account, trashy “Bitch” to get up out of her house, and slurring Jaaackee [as in Jackie Kennedy].  Such domestic scenes are emerging as one of the trademarks of Lee Daniels’ film style. Daniels uses those intimate, deceptively ordinary moments, the ones when nobody’s watching and we dance or sing alone along with the television or we have at home conversation talking about nothing and everything to kin and friends. Remember Monique’s solo dance in the living room as Precious’s Mama in the film adaptation of the novel PUSH?


The director’s latest offering, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is aptly named with the director’s name within. It should serve as a reminder and cautionary note: The film is not a true story – as some writing and talking about it keep saying. It is more accurate to say the film is inspired by real-life, long time White House butler Eugene Allen [whom Forest Whitaker plays as Cecil Gaines]. Daniels takes on a huge effort and not just because he takes on a real man’s identity but more because he’s made a movie about the twentieth century chapter in American racial history spanning over sixty years. This aim is revealed in the first few moments of the film with two of the first shots, Cecil Gaines back at the White House as a guest in the President Obama era and a photograph of a lynching.


The kaleidoscope of history that the film offers is not a new device of course in Hollywood narrative film, hence Forrest Gump and a number of films before it and since, but it’s very often an awkward affair. The stakes in Lee’s effort to document and celebrate this history are higher too because he knows very well the discomfort that African-Americans have had and continue to have around issues of movie representations – particularly sensitivity over those that feature black folk as servants, maids and butlers. Daniels recognizes this in the film, going as far as having Dr. King address the underlining subversive nobility signified by the dignified service of the black servant. He also attempts to thwart easy dismissals of his film's title character as an Uncle Tom, making sure to include the true story of Gaines' request for equal pay and promotions for the black White House servants.  


Lee has competing frames for his story, which emerge dramatically midway through near the end of the film – Gaines and his wife Gloria whose marriage and home life are strained by his long work hours and dedication to the White House – the butler job that allows him to provide well for his family and Gaines and his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) who are predictably torn by a generational, Old Negro-New Negro ideological divide. The son becomes a non-violent student activist, freedom rider, Black Panther, and well-intentioned political candidate. The wide socio-political canvas, intended to unfold through Cecil’s life – including his encounters with the presidents he serves like Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan - tries to encompass so much that it overwhelms the narrative and at moments unintentionally reduces the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power to clichéd representations.


Truths of Gaines’ life as a White House butler and the notable events in the Civil Rights and Black Power era don’t altogether harmonize satisfactorily with the fictionalized drama that Daniels employs to fill in the blanks, humanize his characters, and suggest the tensions the turbulent times brings on a family. In the beginning of the film, Cecil witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his sharecropper father and the repetitious abuse of his mother by the same white man then gets taken in as a house servant to serve the man who killed his father. We know wearing the mask in front of white folk, as the White House butlers model to perfection, is a matter of survival, but the dramatic lack of noticeable anger or discomfort or reflection by Gaines throughout and especially in the midst of violent, civil rights struggle is odd.


Gaines’ transformation near the end from a father outraged over his eldest son’s activism and political radicalism to making peace with him and joining his protest after years of estrangement is so abrupt, it doesn’t pack the emotional poignancy that it should. Gloria, lamenting the White House job that keeps her husband away from home and the troubled relationship between her husband and son, develops a drinking problem, and has an affair with a playboy neighbor (Terrence Howard) that seems to begin out of nowhere and end the same way.


There are a number of lighter humorous moments [nod to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s head butler Carter and Elijah Kelly (Charlie Gaines)] and there are some memorable intense sequences. In one, the camera cuts back and forth between historical footage on the television and several dramatic fragments, overlapping shots of the butlers, pristine and invisible in their black and white, perfectly serving the president and White House guests while the son and his girlfriend participate in sit-in training and get beaten at their first Woolworth sit-in then arrested. The film includes fine performances by Forest Whitaker and a solid supporting cast in Winfrey, Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz as well. The glimpses of the butlers intimate lives in the kitchen and so forth, beyond the whites they serve, are some of the most satisfying – though the black female servants are absurdly hardly visible. The presidential casting wavers and actually gets a little hokey but the casting of Joan Fonda as Nancy Reagan - too perfect.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler does not serve history or the life of Gaines seamlessly though it is a well-intentioned effort. It has good timing too, making its debut at exactly the right historical moment, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  


***


Stephane Dunn is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown.

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