Lee Daniels’ The Butler Serves a Mixed Plate

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

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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