Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Politics Of: The Butler

The Butler is out on DVD. And pay-per-view. It won a bunch of awards. What are its politics? Should you see it? The first section reviews the movie--and it will contain plot points so it may be considered somewhat mild spoilers. The second reviews the politics of it.

The Butler
The Butler (actually Lee Daniel's The Butler, let's not forget its full name) fictionalizes the life of a real guy named Eugene Allen who served 34 years as a butler in the White House (well, he started as like a dish-washer or something but he was a senior butler for a long time). The movie tracks his life through both the evolving civil rights movement and several presidential administrations.

Forest Whitaker plays the fictional Allen (Cecil Gaines) and goes from poverty and oppression in the deep south to a man of quiet dignity who gets to see Obama sworn into office (Allen died in 2010). The movie tracks his two sons (really he just had one) who join the Black Panthers or go to fight in Vietnam. He marries Oprah Winfrey and works with Lenny Kravits and Cuba Gooding Jr., and serves Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (Kennedy),  Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (amongst others). He hugs Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.

If this all seems a bit much (and there's more, his mom is Mariah Carey, for example) rest assured that all those awards were for brilliant acting. Forest Whitaker carries most of it (those other people are more or less cameos) and he carries it well. While I've seen people call Oprah's performance "overwrought" or complaints about Kravits, I have to say I don't see it. These people bring real emotion to the roles they inhabit. This is personal stuff for all of them and they deliver.

On an emotional level, The Butler delivers in spades.

But just so we're clear: it isn't a lot of fun. Whitaker starts life with a gross miscarriage of justice: a white plantation owner rapes his mother, murders his father, and he has to serve the cad inside as a "house n-word" (which is, for him, a good thing since it gets him out of the fields). He works his way up and lands in the White House where he sees presidents do things--but rarely speaks to them.

His sons get into various kinds of trouble (one joins the revolutionary movement gets jailed, drops out of school, and so on). One goes to Vietnam and, on Whitaker's birthday, somber looking guys in uniform show up just before he's heading out to the disco. The movie doesn't have to tell you what news they're delivering.

At that point I was like: This is so awful it must be real because if someone made that up ... ten seconds later on Google I was kinda furious. There was a real guy--a butler at the White House. He did, indeed, do some of the stuff the character does ... but the full title of the movie is Lee Daniel's The Butler and I guess there's a reason for that.

For example: he grew up in Virginia, not Georgia. He had one son who was not a freedom-rider / Black Panther. The son did fight in Vietnam but did not die there (he worked in the State Department). His mother was not raped and his father was not murdered immediately after. His wife was not an alcoholic. She didn't (so far as anyone knows) cheat on him. Whether or not he felt some presidents were racist or he was told he could leave when he asked for a raise after years of service I don't know.

I also know that those things did happen to real people. They certainly could have happened. But they did not all happen to one guy and his immediate family. The somber tone of his life (and the ever-swelling musical score) is entirely fabricated. It is fabricated to make a point, to be sure--but just keep in mind that when you are sitting through 132 minutes of The Butler you are not sitting through Eugene Allen's life. You are sitting through Lee Daniel's (okay, not Daniel's life--I bet Daniels has an okay life--at least right now--but you understand what I'm saying).

This is Lee Daniel's The Butler. It's right there in the name. Don't you forget it.

I can recommend it as a powerhouse of acting and if you love Forest Whitaker there's a lot of him frowning in a dignified fashion throughout this movie. If you want to learn about civil rights though, the quick sprint through history might be better served somewhere else.

The Politics Of The Butler
The question The Butler asks is: how does one make a difference. When facing the crushing injustice of the Jim Crow south and segregation Whitaker chooses to adapt. He accepts a life of quiet dignity in the highest halls of power. To be sure, he is still subservient. To be sure he is still (at times) humiliated (when he asks for a raise, for example) but mostly he does okay.

One son fights for America. The other first protests (as a freedom rider) and then fights (essentially) against it (as a Black Panther). The film (kinda) asks: of these three, who makes the most difference?

I think it wants the answer to be The Butler who is, after all, inside the White House serving presidents. It wants it to be the long-serving, long-suffering man of internal power and perfect behavior (and a big heart--he is there to comfort Mrs. Kennedy for a few brief seconds). It would like us to believe that witnessing history made at the highest levels somehow compels it.

It never makes that case. The answer as to who makes the difference in The Butler is left up in the air. We know the real answer is Martin Luther King and, some few presidents and political parties. The movie doesn't explain this though. It just shows us fragments of history and hopes we'll fill in the blanks of cause and effect.

We see King--and we know what he did (although the movie doesn't show much of the power of his movement--just some set pieces ... mostly violent ones). We see Kennedy--the only president to really engage with Whitaker--give a brief monologue where he (a) knows that Whitaker's kid is a protester and (b) has come to the conclusion (for some reason) those guys are right. He gets his head blown off shortly thereafter.

The son who goes to Vietnam dies--for no really good thematic reason. His protester son does reject the Panthers as violent dead-enders (the movie throws in a belching coarse girl-friend with a giant Afro for good measure).

It has a speaker make a point: it notes that butlers and valets and so on are subversive. They serve in the white-man's house with grace and gravity and they work on the man's mind (too bad this didn't work for the white plantation owner). That the movie feels the need to spell this out is telling.

The problem with the politics of The Butler is that if you take it apart, the final message is that one man doesn't make a difference and The Butler's life is kind of pointless other than that he lives (by dint of good health not afforded Oprah Winfrey) to see Obama elected president. He lives to reconcile with his son at a Mandela protest (we see a brief shot of Reagan refusing to back sanctions against South African apartheid with no reason given--it was Cold War era considerations).

Ultimately, though, after killing the son who fights for America (as though, perhaps, racial integration had nothing to do with Civil Rights? Absurd--but the movie doesn't touch on it. It had already happened when Whitaker's White House tenure started) and humiliating the son who fights against America, it has nowhere to go. The Butler stands alone (and he does too, in front of that big window)--but did he do anything?

No. He never speaks truth to power. When he goes for a raise (during the second Reagan administration) he gets it because he spoke with Ronnie and Ronnie backed him (for a film that isn't kind to Reagan this is an interesting choice since I don't think anyone knows if it's real or not). He doesn't make any case, make any statements. When he is in the room and they're talking about Civil Rights he ... pours the coffee and pretends to be invisible.

The movie has to tell us that's subverting the power structure but what if I don't entirely buy it? What if I think it was military integration? King's legendarily powerful oration and presence? A tide of history that started before abolitionists--but continued behind the scenes. What if I think presidents are more important and complex than 190 seconds of screen time?

If I think that I'm left with a glum and dismal movie that doesn't give me the lift I need to achieve happy-ending escape velocity.

The politics of The Butler are ultimately a sleight of hand: they don't show you the real stuff and they use a distorted lens of the script and a few well-placed narrative fun-house mirrors to try to sell you on a story it doesn't actually support.

A Note On Reagan: I'd seen a furor over the movie's treatment of Reagan. People don't remember that Reagan was a foreign policy president. He was in there for the explicit purpose of fighting the Cold War. Just before he became president 11 countries in Latin America had flipped to communism which, at the time, was a very real, very dangerous geopolitical threat.

He feared an over-turned South Africa could do the same and it would have been a highly resourced prize for the Soviet Union. People can argue about his racial legacy all day long (I think he had a decent one--but I understand black people of the time were not impressed with him) but to put everything he did on one action (South Africa) without context seems manipulative to me.

On the other hand, while I like Reagan I'm not a member of his lonely-hearts club. The movie wasn't exactly fair to his legacy but it did paint him as warm and friendly and intelligent. It was, I thought, good to Nancy Reagan--and it did, as I said, have Reagan back him on the pay raises for black employees. I think the level of anger I've seen directed at the movie is misplaced.

The Butler is definitely left wing, yes. How could it not be? But before it stumbles into the "smear-job" territory it, instead, just lands squarely in the too-much-history-to-fit-in-the-story camp. We don't even see Carter and Ford (maybe on TV screens).

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