Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler


LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER           B-         
USA  (132 mi)  2013  d:  Lee Daniels                 Official site

Darkness cannot drive out darkness — only light can.        —Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is a truly strange movie, at times deliciously entertaining, while at other times one is simply aghast at the ineptitude, where mixed signals are sent throughout, partly tragic, partly comic, where for several moments one had to wonder if this could possibly be a subversive attempt to actually send a message to America, but instead it comes across as a toned-down Disney movie of the week, where the narrative style unfortunately resembles Uncle Remus storytelling at the White House, told in the supposedly inoffensive manner of Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946), which is really one long American narrative as Uncle Remus takes us through the Civil Rights era of history, as seen through the eyes of a long-serving White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).  Rather than deal with anything remotely resembling the present, it appears that today’s movies prefer to remain stuck in the past, continually conjuring up stories that deal with an era of loyal black servitude and obedience, like The Help (2011), Django Unchained (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and now yet another, as if the drumbeat of showing past transgressions will somehow alter the course of today’s history.  If that is the desired effect, it’s not working.  One has to wonder who decides which black stories are told, or how they’re told?  And why do we continue to project the same negative stereotypes that only reinforce images of black subservience?  Black talents like Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker have received critical acclaim for playing maids and butlers, while British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is the odds on favorite for an Academy Award for playing a kidnapped free slave sold into the brutality of slavery.  Why is Hollywood retelling the same story of black oppression and subjugation?  Because the formula makes money, so it appears the only work blacks can obtain in Hollywood these days is enduring the unending racial abuse inflicted upon them and then somehow it’s considered a victory if they survive.  No one likes to be reminded of the times when they were terrorized and subjugated and forced to live in fear, but black Americans have to relive this experience seemingly forever and then watch people applaud this as art.     

Adapted from an article written by Wil Haygood that appeared in The Washington Post just a few weeks after President-elect Obama won the election on November 27, 2008, A Butler Well Served by This Election - Washington Post, providing a profile of White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife Helene.  While the article placed its focus upon the painfully slow addition of black officials working in various White House administrations, this story is ignored by the movie.  It should also be stated that Allen didn’t have a militant son, or a cotton plantation childhood, as these were Hollywood constructions needed to fabricate an epic storyline like this one, which is a doozy, as it weaves one man’s family through a greatest hits of Civil Rights history, including Brown vs. Board of Education, the freedom riders, the Birmingham boycotts, the Little Rock school crisis, federal intervention sent to integrate southern schools, the Civil Rights legislation, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, the cities burning, the Black Panther party, before then reaching across the ocean to Apartheid in South Africa.  That’s quite a mouthful, enough to make one wince at the utter superficiality that each historical event receives.  Making matters worse, the name actors portraying the United States Presidents are caricatures that one presumes are unintentionally comic, where guffaws in the audience are simply based upon casting choices and the physical mannerisms used to play each President, as they resemble Saturday Night Live comic portrayals.  And the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy  Reagan, how is that not subversive?  She’s exquisite, by the way, in her own hilarious way.

The casting of Whitaker as the butler is a good one, as after all, he already won an Oscar for portraying Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006), and he was Jim Jarmusch’s Zen-like high priest in GHOST DOG (1999), so we know this guy’s capable of just about anything.  Oprah, on the other hand, as his wife Gloria, will always be seen as Oprah, no matter what anybody else says, as she’s too big a celebrity and personality, where all attempts to act are just that, pretending to be something she isn’t, where in the early part of the picture where she plays a drunk, she simply channels Mo’Nique from PRECIOUS (2009), and yes, it’s really that obvious.  They have two sons, where the oldest, Louis, is played by David Oyelowo, who becomes a fierce young militant who literally takes us through every stage of history from the freedom riders to the Black Panthers, all of which he experiences himself, including being in the same motel room as Martin Luther King just before he got shot.  Say what?  How is that possible if he was not part of the inner team, all names that are familiar to us by now?  Well, the truth is, it’s not, but this is a Hollywood recreation of history, and they can do whatever they want so long as they think it will sell tickets.  Which brings us to why is Lee Daniels name in the title?  Screenwriter Danny Strong was hired a year before Daniels signed on as the film’s director, a picture purchased by Harvey Weinstein, so one would suspect that Daniels, the last one hired, had the least amount of control over the picture, even when it comes to naming rights.  The official story is that The Weinstein Company could not get the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau (TRB) to authorize the use of the title, even under appeal, because of an existing 1916 Warner Brother’s short film by that name, charging Weinstein with willful violation and ordering a $400,000 fine.  As a result, they put the director’s name in front of the title, causing a certain amount of consternation to Daniels, who felt people might think he was drawing too much attention to himself.          

What is particularly powerful about the picture is the portrayal of black father and son relationships, established in the opening shots of the film in 1926 Georgia at an existing cotton plantation where Cecil (as a child) and his own father worked, which was run exactly as it did during the slavery era, no difference whatsoever except they didn’t shackle slaves.  Blacks were still routinely killed by whites, calling them “niggers,” even by judges in court, and whites just as routinely got away with it, using the violent threat of lynchings and the KKK if anyone had any other ideas.  In another casting misadventure, Mariah Carey plays Cecil’s mother in the fields, where after her own sexual assault, they both witness the shooting of her husband, after which Cecil is led from the fields into the house under the tutelage of none other than Vanessa Redgrave to become the subservient “house nigger.”  He learns so well he eventually becomes the White House butler serving 8 different Presidents from Truman to Reagan, where the rules are identical, as he is never to display any emotion, react to anything seen, or engage anyone other than his boss.  The irony here is that his oldest son runs off to college and becomes a campus militant, the polar opposite of his father, where viewing American black history from the 20’s through the 80’s through the shared father and son experiences is simply too much, as it’s too great a cultural divide.  For instance, we learn about what happened to Emmett Till over the dinner table as a drunken Gloria is serving food to her family, where that’s the extent of the experience, mentioned in much the same way as idle gossip.  Both parents are convinced that having left the South, they have obtained security for their family.  But Louis will not rest until blacks have the same rights as other American citizens, joining the freedom riders where he is routinely assaulted, beaten, spit upon, and arrested.  Because of these offenses, Cecil disowns his son and refuses to speak to him, which is his way of deluding himself about his son and history.    

In much the same way, it’s interesting how the Presidents engage in private conversations with their black butlers about the ‘black” problems, where Eisenhower doesn’t get how his experience growing up on a farm isn’t the same as Cecil’s, or LBJ’s profusive use of the word “nigger” to his own cabinet and staff somehow evolves to the word “Negro” on national television, JFK coolly describes to Cecil (who had no idea) that his son has been arrested 15 times, before television photos of the firehoses turned on peacefully demonstrating blacks in Birmingham cause he and his brother to have a change of heart on the race issue, while Reagan (played by the Harry Potter wizard specializing in the Dark Arts) second guesses his own shortsightedness on the post Civil Rights race relations, something one sincerely doubts, since the Reagan Republicans have consistently attempted to all but legalize racial discrimination, playing the race card in political ads ever since that cynically appeal to white votes.  But in this film, the theme of the film comes from the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken to Louis just moments before he would be shot, “Domestics play a very big role in our history.  In many ways they are subversive without ever knowing it,” suggesting they break down negative racial stereotypes by demonstrating steady employment, also by performing their jobs with grace and dignity, showing that they can be trusted, all of which defies the inherently distrustful views of racial bigotry. 

But the arc of the story leads to a reunification of father and son, to President Obama, and the mistaken belief that things are finally so much better for blacks in America, where the film’s tagline, “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” is simply ridiculous.  Who are they kidding?  Then why are so many black men (over a million) languishing in prisons at the moment?  And why is it legal to arrest a black and a white man for the exact same drug offense, yet the sentence for the black is so much more severe than the white, who with a lawyer may never serve any prison time at all?  Whites use drugs 5 times more than blacks, yet blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.  Blacks constitute more than 80% of those incarcerated under federal crack cocaine laws and serve substantially more time in prison than do their white counterparts, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic, so it’s now perfectly legal for the police to exclusively target black neighborhoods for drug raids and for the court system to exhibit racial discrimination in court sentencing, and no one says a word.  But while blacks no longer have to sit at the back of the bus, progress has been slow going, with all too many reminders of the vicious cycle of racial hatred that continues without end from generation to generation.         

While the picture has some well known blacks promoting and participating in the making of the movie, the question must be asked, is this a black movie?  Borrowing from the website Racism Is White Supremacy:  Is “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (Really) A “Black Movie?” | Racism Is ... 

1. Who wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Butler? 

Danny Strong, Screenwriter for ‘The Butler,’ who was hired to write “The Butler” in 2009, a year before Daniels even signed on as director.

2. Who Owns the (Distribution) Rights to  the movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”?

Harvey Weinstein (Co-Chairman – the Weinstein Company)


David Glasser, Weinstein Co. COO

3. Who are the Producers, Executive Producers and Co-Producers of “The Butler?”

Laura Ziskin – Executive Producer (deceased)

Hilary Shor – Executive Producer 

Adam Merims – Executive Producer

Buddy Patrick – Producer

Shelia Johnson – Producer

Lee Daniels – Producer

Cassian Elwes – Producer 

How, then, is this considered a “black” movie?  This is Hollywood’s portrayal of a black movie, which is an altogether different thing, as the creative minds and financial power behind the film are almost entirely white.  So one must keep in mind that this is still how white people view blacks even in contemporary society, where it’s a continuation of a white Hollywood racist fantasia that’s been the corporate business model for well over 100 years, where leading black roles of continued submission and obedient servitude to whites are the ones more likely to be accepted by white audiences and nominated for Academy Awards.


  1. Excellent piece of movie blogging! Wonderful analysis. I want to underline that The Butler works commercially because it is a formula movie in the vein of Forrest Gump (which, although it is politically problematic, I happen to regard as a masterpiece - but that is a topic of another discussion) and the likes: people know what they are getting before they enter the movie theatre. It's actually not that far from a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich movie: everything is (over)simplified and calculated - and with a star stuffed cast.

    I just feel bad for Danny Strong, who is an icon as Jonathan on Buffy, The Vampire Slayer: as the writer of the excellent TV movie Recount he showed promise.

  2. Hey Anton,

    Don't feel too bad for Danny Strong, as I'm sure he was well compensated for his efforts. Interestingly the film was released twice here in the United States, initially around August for a first run, and then again in December for two weeks, where it was released just prior to the holiday releases.

    Very strange experience watching this film, as the ambitious historical reach is quite simply stunning, but then turns into an unintended hilarious misstep, where you're suddenly embarrassed at the movie-of-the-week quality of the film. This film is so bad at times that it may generate a cult following.