Sunday, August 18, 2013

Backstairs at the White House: THE BUTLER

In The Butler, director Lee Daniels recreates the Civil Rights movement in the guise of stirringly personal melodrama. A key scene revolves around the dinner table of a middle class black family in Washington D.C some time in 1968. The Freedom Rider son snipes at his parents when they express admiration for Sidney Poitier. He’s breaking down barriers, they say. He’s doing so by “acting white,” their son snaps. How thrilling it is to see this conversation play out not only on the big screen, but in a big, star-studded Hollywood film that’s for once seriously interested in the 50s, 60s, and 70s from the perspective of African American lives without feeling the need to hedge bets and shoehorn in a white perspective or reduce the black experience of the period into talking points and homogenous unity. That the film is messy and ungainly in many respects is only an outgrowth of its seriousness of intent, the depth of its inquisitive mournfulness, and the commitment it has to wrangling differing viewpoints into a sweeping, decades-spanning story of one man’s humble job as one of many butlers in the White House.

That man is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Born to sharecroppers in the Deep South in the 1920s, he witnessed the death of his father at the hands of a snarling white farmer. Once grown, he leaves to find work, eventually ending up in a prestigious Washington, D.C. hotel. From there he’s eventually invited to interview for a position on the staff of the White House during the Eisenhower administration. He’s hired as a butler, a position he will keep for over thirty years and seven presidents. Whitaker, appearing meek and small in his broad frame, moves deliberately. He plays a man who takes great pride in his job and finds great success in it, moving between the backstage world of the house, chatting with his black colleagues (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) in back rooms before putting on unrevealing public faces to walk out into the Oval Office and state dinners alike, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. If it weren’t for the politics half-overheard, the news on the TVs and radio, and the changing fashions, one gets a sense that Cecil could very well stay in this job and let the 20th century pass him by.

Yet that’s a choice he cannot make for himself. He’s a part of the times whether he wants to be or not. Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) is introduced in a scene that finds her commiserating with great sadness about the death of Emmett Till. The turbulence of the Civil Rights movement is inescapable. Soon, his oldest son (David Oyelowo, in a great performance that takes his character from a teenager to a middle-aged man) becomes a civil rights fighter, allowing the film some stirring cross-cutting between the butler’s daily tasks and the most notable moments of the civil rights struggle, none more powerful than the banquet juxtaposed against a lunch counter sit-in. His son becomes a more socio-politically honest Forrest Gump, a first-hand eyewitness to history at every turn, but full of agency and conviction that leads him there. He’s a driver of events, not a mere spectator, to sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and Black Panthers, even at one point sitting in a Birmingham jail cell down the row from where Martin Luther King Jr. would be writing his famous letter.

It’s the tensions in this father-son relationship that drive a good chunk of the film, a reflection of divides within America and within the African American community. The son has an approach to current events that often clashes with the accommodating, personal views of the various administrations that his father often has. As the volatile 60s curdle into the 70s, Cecil simply can’t ignore the situations unfolding around him. The political is undoubtedly and inescapably personal. As he moves with a tray of refreshments into the background in rooms of power, where white men make decisions about race while the black man walks silently through the scene, it’s an image that’s oft repeated and makes quiet points about the nature of power and access to true understanding about racial issues. When a white politician ruminates about what should be done about “Negro problems,” no one even seems to notice the black butler silently slipping out of the room. There’s rich subtext here about the variety of ways racial barriers are both erected and chipped away.

The march of presidents and the march of cameos playing them is at once broad and matter-of-fact. It’s a feast of over-cooked accent work, wigs and sculpted putty noses and jowls. Through Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman) – Ford and Carter are left for file footage to portray – Cecil works in close proximity to men of power and historical interest. But they’re never more than broad sound bites and brief impressions in Danny Strong’s screenplay. They may be important people, but they are the least convincing aspect of the film. Similarly, the Big Events of the era pass by with the flatly unimaginative, albeit dramatically effective, progression of a history report. The Butler is best in scenes of loose and unhurried interactions between characters of middle- and working-class: the butlers, neighbors (like Terrence Howard), and students (like Yaya Dacosta). This becomes a film not about a man and the presidents he served, but about a man and his family, buffeted by the course of history while entangled in their own interpersonal dramas.

Lee Daniels, a hammy director if there ever was one, makes bold and oftentimes inexplicable choices. After two terribly nutso productions (Shadowboxer and The Paperboy) and an overdetermined miserabilist drama (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire), he’s found the most purpose and focus he’s yet been able to muster while still retaining his always interesting personality. He’s the kind of director who’d rather fail trying something unexpected than play it safe. That’s why, even when it may be hard to enjoy one of his films, it’s rarely easy to dismiss it entirely. He starts The Butler with a shot of two lynched black men dangling from a tree, an American flag waving in the background, while a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. fades up on the side of the image. It’s stark and startling, butting up against our first look at Forest Whitaker dressed for duty and sitting in a White House corridor before flashing back to his childhood. Right away, Daniels tells us his intent to show us the life of a man against the backdrop of larger historical and symbolic concerns. And yet the movie works both erratically and well for keeping the larger concerns confined to the background, flavoring without taking over, only erupting when they most directly intersect with the lives of the butler and his family. It’s like Eyes on the Prize plays out as a backdrop for one family’s quintessentially 60s and 70s problems.

This causes for some strained and wandering filmmaking that at worst keeps context a mere dusting, but at best finds rich resonances, especially in the two lead performances. Whitaker’s steady, wise, slowly evolving portrayal of a quietly strong man is a great anchor. It’s a deceptively static performance that gathers unexpected riches the longer the film rolls. Winfrey, for her part, is a dynamic presence on screen. Decades of her status as talk show royalty have clouded the public’s memory of her real and genuine qualities as an actress. She has boundless charisma and incredible emotional force. Here she’s playing a woman who loves her husband deeply and truly, but doesn’t stop gathering tensions and jealousies, great disappointments and great pride. She loves her family and her life and yet still wishes for more. As her character gathers struggles of her own, Winfrey plays a symphony of melodrama, compelling all the way. One of my favorite scenes in the film finds her dancing alone to Soul Train in a scene that starts endearingly silly and eventually finds its way to sudden funk-scored tragedy. In another she drunkenly drawls superficial questions about Jackie Kennedy (in her state she pronounces it “Jack√©e”), digging for gossip from her placid husband’s steadfast commitment to confidentiality. What works best about the film is how Whitaker and Winfrey’s performances contain unspoken conflicts and resolutions that sneak past the film’s sometimes-overdetermined messaging and heavy-handed narration. 

The film goes this way and that as emotions and ages make leaps and bounds. The film is overstuffed, overflowing with dramatic points of interest and subplots that surge, take over, and fade away to maybe return again. It’s the kind of film that is directed in five or six directions at once, square and impressionistic, corny and evocative, comedic and deadly serious. Daniels stages Big National Events loudly and emphatically while personal and political scenes play tenderly and with ellipsis. I particularly enjoyed a very small, slowly simmering subplot between Winfrey and Howard that fleetingly feels like a cousin to Wong Kar Wai by way of Douglas Sirk. Daniels is a director who works not only with melodrama, but also with an awareness of a variety of types of melodrama. It’s a film of resonant surface detail and deeply moving implications. It doesn’t all fit together, but that’s part of what makes it compelling. This isn’t a film that makes oversized claims of historical import about the individuals, but rather illuminates the importance of the individual in society’s evolution.

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