Movie Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

I have to admit that my expectations of a Hollywood movie actually doing a decent job explaining the United States’ racial history are pretty low.  In that sense Lee Daniels’ The Butler did not disappoint.  If I understand the movie correctly white people raped, murdered, kept African Americans ignorant and subservient just because they could.  Why? I have no idea.  Kenneth Tynan writing in the Los Angeles Times finds this one dimensional view of whites insulting but welcome to our world. Hollywood has a lot to do to even the scales of one-dimensionality that African Americans have suffered for a century. The movie tells us that black folks on their part had two strategies.  They could be bullied into accepting a life of house Negro, smile and wear the mask in order to eke out a living for sixty or more years. Or they could become heroic resistors fighting through sit-ins, freedom rides and demonstrations. I don’t know why one path was chosen over the other or whether there were alternatives, but I have learned through this movie that both paths were noble. Hollywood production values made the re-enactments of the sit-ins, demonstrations and freedom rides riveting although the actual pictures of those events actually had more power.  Although it moved too fast to actually comprehend, the history of the civil rights movement was on track until it reached the Black Panther Party. Mainstream accounts of black history have a hard time with black radicalism and this movie was no exception.

Perhaps these reminders that there was a reality to the civil rights movement beyond the sanitized versions now taught in schools will be helpful for generations that did not experience them even vicariously through television. At least some of the backlash against African Americans and the resurgence of racism comes from a rebellion against the nostalgia-fication and mainstreaming of the civil rights movement. The one note caricatures of white presidents and first ladies do not help as they speed by. It is interesting to note that the president who helped the “the help” most was Ronald Reagan although he admits he is on the wrong side of civil rights in most things. Otherwise, Eisenhower is confused and strains to comprehend, Kennedy eventually comes around until he is shot, Nixon is slimy, Carter is skipped over as a blip in history, and Nancy Reagan is a cold, manipulative bitch, all things we knew before. The least convincing part of the history is the butler’s conversion to a more activist role in his seventies over South Africa in the 1980’s(!?) All of a sudden he decides that the other path of resistance is the correct one and his son was a hero rather than the sullen, self righteous pain he had believed him (with good reason) to be.

The movie does better when it is depicting lower middle class black life.  They try to grab whatever happiness they can in the little spaces left to them but the role of house Negro creates strains on the butler’s marriage and family. Alcoholism, adultery and estrangement are the results although be assured that all is overcome by the end in good Hollywood fashion. The portrait of a loving, two parent family which sends one son off to college and the other off to the Army is a too rare moment in American film. The generational divide between an older generation that had learned to go along as a way of getting along and a younger generation of heroic resisters, is effectively incarnated as a family divide. The metaphor goes on about a decade too long but at least it shows that the civil rights movement was not a monolithic thing.

The acting is solid with some nice touches among the black actors.  Forest Whitaker is earnest and long suffering as he is meant to be.  Oprah never makes us forget that she is Oprah but her character touches on sides of her (dancing, drunk and lecherous) we never see.  Terence Howard does a good job as an oily neighbor and the rest of the cast does what they are asked to do. Nelsan Ellis is wasted in a small cameo as Martin Luther King Jr. after he does so well as the flauntingly gay cook in True Blood. He does get to voice the movie’s main message that subservience is subversive and those who merely served also contributed to the movement.  It is hard to make a “hero” out of someone whose major role is to stand around “so that the room seems empty” when they are there. These butlers were often the only black people the presidents knew and on several occasions the movie wants us to believe the conceit that presidents changed their minds about civil rights because of the butler. If the film’s message was that black folks should remain subservient until white America’s conscience is awakened by African American noble suffering, I would be even more critical of it.  By the end however the butler eventually is convinced that heroic and active resistance is the way to go.  I hope this isn’t lost on those who see it.

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