Friday, September 6, 2013

The Butler

Alternate Title:  George Lucas' Homework Assignment

One sentence synopsis:   The lives of a White House Butler and his activist son are entwined with the history of the Civil Rights movement.

Things Havoc liked:  I am often reminded, in the course of this ongoing experiment, of the worst movie I have seen to-date under its auspices, specifically George Lucas' titanic World War II/Racism failure, Red Tails. I savaged Red Tails when it came out, still recovering from the trauma of having watched it in the first place, and yet somehow I have never felt satisfied by my response to the film, as for all the detail I went into, there was no way for me to fully sum up in text what mistakes Lucas had made in celluloid. Jean-Luc Goddard (the filmmaker, not the Starfleet Captain, you philistines), once said that the way to criticize a film is to make another film, but alas, the majority of us amateur film critics do not have the years or disposable millions to do that, and must settle for complaining in text on obscure film blogs in the dark corners of the internet to tiny audiences. Nevertheless, there remains something to the notion, as it is (I now quote Pixar), ultimately a more meaningful act to create a terrible film than it is to describe it as such. I muse on these things here because, given the evidence, Lee Daniels, the director behind Monster's Ball, Precious, and The Paperboy, has also recognized this fundamental notion, and in the spirit of responding to Lucas' atrocity in a manner Goddard would approve of, has given us The Butler.

Set in Washington and the South from the 1920s through to today, the Butler is the tale of Cecil Gaines, the son of dirt-poor, black sharecroppers in Georgia, who finds his way to Washington DC and becomes a butler in the Eisenhower White House. It is also the tale of his son, Louis, who attends Fisk University in Tennessee just in time to be caught up the tumultuous events of the Civil Rights movement, becoming an activist, a Black Panther, and ultimately, a congressman. Along the way, the film surveys more or less the entire civil rights movement, both from the perspective of the presidents that had to grapple with the challenges of civil rights, to the servants within the White House, and their elevated-but-lowly status, insulated from the chaos further south, to the freedom riders and sit-iners who bore the brunt of the violence, abuse, and arrest that the movement demanded. Along the way, we meet presidents, staffers, servants, neighbors, girlfriends, civil rights leaders, racists, soldiers, and all the various panoply of people that fill these characters lives over the course of a good forty years, played in almost every case by the single most loaded cast I have ever seen.

I'm serious, the cast for this movie is stacked, so stacked that I can't even go through it all and have time to discuss anything else. Not since Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet have I seen such a cast, one so impressive that Vanessa Redgrave is called upon to play a bit part with one line, and Robin Williams is afforded scarcely more than a minute of screentime. Every part in the film, from the most minor to the most major is filled by recognizable, A (or at least B)-list actors, but front and center are three in particular. Forrest Whittaker, of Ghost Dog and Last King of Scotland (and Battlefield Earth) fame, plays the title role of Cecil Gaines, a sharecropper-turned-thief-turned-butler who winds up at the White House serving president after president. I wouldn't call this Whittaker's best role, as with the exception of a couple scenes, he's more or less called upon to play a reactionless servant. But the sequences where he does get to stretch the character (dealing with his family) are done well, and Whittaker plays the character at a variety of ages with perfect consistency. But it's Gaines' wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, who really steals these sequences. I've seen Oprah in a couple of films before, some good (The Color Purple), some not good (Beloved), but here she steals the entire show. Someone I know told me they had a hard time seeing anyone but Oprah, the television personality, but I had no such difficulty. Oprah's performance is the best in the film, and in many ways holds it together.

A lot of this film is stunt casting, meaning casting done for novelty value, but with actors of this caliber, this matters very little. Best of the bunch for the Presidents is Liev Schreiber, playing LBJ, who curses up a Texas storm and refers to the black population of the country by the N-word, all while signing the most comprehensive civil rights bill since the 14th amendment. Alan Rickman, a man I would not think of to play Ronald Reagan, also does a good turn, mimicking the Gipper's soft voice and extended word delivery. Meanwhile, downstairs, Cecil's fellow butlers are played most effectively by Lenny Kravitz (?) and Red Tails' Cuba Gooding Jr. Gooding, in particular, has been in a slump basically ever since Jerry Maguire, but here manages to break out of it with a role that, while small, feels drawn from real places. When Cecil's son, to whom he is no longer speaking, is arrested for some fresh protest, Gooding's character is the one to bail him out, along with a number of words concerning what he should and should not be doing. And speaking of Cecil's son, David Oyelowo, who was the best thing out of Red Tails (not that that's saying much), does an excellent turn as a college firebrand turned panther turned congressman. As with Red Tails, he plays the character straight and understated, save of course that in this movie that's more of a stylistic choice and less of a survival strategy. The sequences where his character participates in the civil rights movement are portrayed with brutal honesty towards how these episodes must have happened, particularly an early sequence where the young activists (both white and black, I was glad to see), first prepare for, and then execute a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter, ultimately being beaten, abused, and arrested by the white authorities and local militiamen.

Things Havoc disliked:  It's often said that if you have to resort to a voiceover narration, you have failed as a scriptwriter, and while that notion is slightly flippant, there's something to it nonetheless. Among such films as have used voiceover to wonderful effect are the terrible theatrical version of Blade Runner, and the worst movie in the history of filmmaking, The Last Airbender. The Butler's sins do not come close to those of the films I just cited, but the voiceover in the Butler is still a bad idea, one that tells us episodes we should be shown. The inner thoughts of a character should come from within the characters actions and the actor's performance, not from the screenwriter standing up with a megaphone and shouting "this character is sad now!"

There's also the difficulty of the film's first half hour, wherein Cecil grows up on a cotton plantation, and sees his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and his father murdered with impunity by the son of the local plantation boss. I grant that such things probably did happen in the world of 1920s Georgia, but the son is so perfectly evil in every way, murdering people openly in the fields with a racist sneer on his face, that the entire concept disintegrates into bad farce. There are excellent scenes of racism in action in this film, the aforementioned sit-in, a lengthy sequence involving the KKK's attack on a Freedom Rider bus, and other moments both overt and subtle from the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s. Why, then, was it necessary to headline all of these sequences with something so over the top as to be a pastiche of racism?

Finally, we have to discuss (fellow Red Tails Alum) Terrence Howard's character, a neighbor of Cecil and Gloria, who is a womanizer and general disreputable person, and with whom Gloria has an affair. Anyone who can explain to me what the point of Howard's character was is invited to do so, as I could not determine as much. His character shows up, acts sleazy, disappears, acts sleazy some more, and then is killed off-screen by a jealous husband, never to be mentioned again. Even his affair with Gloria, an episode that would seem to be important, is glossed over with a few throwaway lines and no consequences whatsoever. Cecil never discovers the affair, meaning he cannot react to it, and the very first mention of it is Gloria telling Howard that it must end. In a film this congested with actors and characters, this is time that could have gone to so many other things.

Final thoughts:   I have no idea if Lee Daniels actually intended The Butler to be a response to Red Tails (my guess would be no), but in perfect honesty, he might as well have. This movie is to that one like Interview with the Vampire is to Twilight, a movie that is not only good, but simply by being good, illustrates the manifest flaws of its inferior counterpart. Taking the same cast (Gooding, Howard, Oyelowo) and putting them in another film about racism and the struggle for equality, Daniels proves conclusively what did not need proving, that Red Tails was not the fault of its cast, but of its scriptwriters, director, and producer. Though it falls short of the oscar-worthy mark it is clearly attempting to reach, The Butler is still a very good film, a simple story about a man and his son who lived in interesting times, and what they made of them. Never overly sappy, nor flagrantly melodramatic, the movie is a very solid piece about a historical process of infinite complexity, as seen by those whose lives were played out in its wake.

Final Score:  7/10

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