Directed by: Lee Daniels
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Adriane Lenox, David Oyelowo
My father once told me a tale of two separate families who survived the middle passage. They both arrived in the “The New World” and the paternal leaders of both families were immediately beaten, violated and humiliated in front of their respective families. One father, over taken by such intense public displays of degradation in the face of his own children, spat in the White face his oppressors and damned him to hell. As he lurched to rip the throat out of these purveyors of evil to prove to his family (and himself) that he would not accept such blatant injustices, he was shot in the head and died immediately.
The other father received equal amounts of violence and humiliation and his anger towards these men and his situation further eclipsed that of the prior father. But instead of returning saliva to his captors, he offered silent humility. My father then asked me which man I admire more. Before I could fix my lips up to tout the praises of an aggressive, virulent martyr who stood up for his rights, my father slyly interjected, “Just remember you’re a descendant of the humble father, because he lived longer, was able to keep his family alive and have more babies.”
This notion, in a nutshell, is the basis of Lee Daniels’ The Butler as we experience the film’s protagonist Cecil Gaines’ uncomfortably quiet rage against the injustices of an America swollen to the brim with immorality, corruption and inequality. As a young boy on a segregated Georgia cotton plantation in 1926, Cecil and his father helplessly watch the plantation owner rape his mother (an underused Mariah Carey who doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue but instead reenacts a mimed version of her video for “My All” for the rest of the film). When the father approaches the temperamental owner, he is killed immediately by a single gunshot to his head. The rest of the film rambles on as Cecil is taken in by the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) whose efforts into forming him to become a proper “House Nigga”, lead him to further subservient jobs over the years that ultimately land him a position as a butler in the White House.
During his occupation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Cecil (played as an adult with amazing tenderness and concentration by Forrest Whittaker) displays a humility that charms his fellow servants (a wooden Lenny Kravitz and convincingly risqué Cuba Goodling Jr.) and White leaders of the free world alike as his presence subtly intertwines in their decision making processes in a Forrest Gump-like seamlessness to world events.
These moments try in vain to shed new light on the politics of race relations in America, but they ultimately boil down to standard Hollywood tropes of African Americans being the consummate victim of circumstance and history and Caucasians being the authoritarian puppet masters of which victimhood can be overcome only with their assistance and approval (see The Legend of Bagger Vince, The Help, The Long Walk Home). And right when your eyes might gloss over at the predictably ludicrousness of a Jim Crow America (yes segregation and inequality is fucked up, we got it) in comes Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Cecil’s not-so-dutiful wife, to add some much needed warmth and depth to Cecil’s story. While nothing is particularly new or nuanced in recounting his experiences with racism and inequality, his story becomes resoundingly richer when we are introduced to his home front where his politically pacifist inclinations fail to charm or impress. As Cecil’s devotion to the White House grows, the Oval Office becomes Cecil’s unwitting mistress of sorts, much to the dismay of suffering Gloria who decides to match Cecil affair for affair with her more than willing neighbor (Terrence Howard).
Equally impressive are Elijah Kelly and David Oyelowo who play Cecil’s sons, daddy’s boy Charlie and rebellious Louis respectively. It is Oyelowo who carries the brunt of emotional work here, acting as Cecil’s id participating in nationalist militant organizations and experiencing all of the exhilaration and violence entailed therein while Cecil trudges on his own path of assisting the cause of racial equality through quiet service and compliance. It is when these two clash, both resoundingly refusing to accept the other's route to reach the same goal, where we get to see the depth of Cecil’s submissively calm waters.
But ultimately the conflicts of the film lose steam whereas history diffuses any politically based plot points set up (yes, Nixon gets impeached, Kennedy and King get shot, Reagan supports apartheid) and nothing new is added to enhance the conflicts in Cecil’s home so what you observe for an extended period of time (the film is over two hours long, by the way) is a repetitive regurgitation of how arduous the Civil Rights movement was, Cecil refusing to talk with his son and the rest of the cast aging appropriately as the decades slip past… everyone aside from Oprah who seemed to remain vampire-middle aged for the majority of the film until the last scenes where she jarringly slams into abject dilapidation.
Hanoi Jane (Jane Fonda) portraying Nancy Reagan, Forrest Whitaker though giving a flawless performance appearing astoundingly unattractive in every single shot of the entire film and ALL of the actors who portrayed American presidents competing for this year’s Razzie Awards with John Cusack the clear forerunner with one of the absolute worst reenactments of Richard Nixon ever to be filmed, it still remains astutely effective doing what good cinema is supposed to do, entertain, fascinate and instill a sense of curiosity after the credits roll.
Male Media Mind