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Monday, August 19 2013

The Butler

Which does more to challenge and change the toxic assumptions of American racism: the quiet, gently subversive examples of hard-working, non-threatening black men and women, or the forceful protests of angry black activists?

It is to the credit of director Lee Daniels' new film The Butler that it provides no easy answers, but thoughtfully explores the question through the lives of the title character and his family.  Along the way, the movie provides vivid glimpses of a parallel America in which casual, brutal degradation nearly unimaginable to those who never had to live it (this reviewer included) is a regular feature.

Based on the true story of a black domestic servant who served in the White House from 1952 to 1986, working for seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, The Butler stars the talented Forest Whitaker as butler Cecil Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey as his loving and (mostly) loyal wife Gloria. The film also features a remarkable stable of actors, from Robin Williams to Alan Rickman, playing the various presidents whom Cecil served, and some of America's best known African-American actors playing Cecil's family, friends and coworkers.

Nearly every performance in the film is excellent or better; it's hard to single out anyone, when the entire cast did a remarkable job. That said, Whitaker manages to stand out with the quiet, understated dignity of his portrayal of Cecil, whose challenge in life is to carefully navigate the path between the dignity demanded by the soul of a man, and the subservience demanded by his station in life.

The Butler is scarcely a perfect movie, however. One of its most profound flaws is the handling of Cecil and Gloria's oldest son Louis, played by David Oyelowo. Louis begins the story as an intelligent, sullen teenager, who goes to college in the South specifically to seek out and participate in organized resistance to southern segregation. Along the way, Louis sits at a Woolworth's lunch counter, participates as a Freedom Rider, hangs out in a motel room with Martin Luther King (shortly before his assassination), becomes a Black Panther (but quits the group when he learns of their plans to take part in retributive violence), runs for Congress (but loses), and participates in demonstrations outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. By the end of the film, Louis has won a seat in Congress.

That's just one coincidence too many, and here the film approaches Forrest Gump levels of stretched credulity. The uneasy relationship between Louis and his father stands as a symbol for a conflict that has existed in black America since W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington: does the path of salvation for African Americans lie primarily in confrontation and struggle against discrimination, or in gradual, non-threatening assimilation via "industry, thrift, intelligence and property"? Ultimately, a major character who is more symbol than person will compromise any film.

 On a more fundamental level, The Butler suffers from the fact that it leaves completely unexamined the complex entanglement of the Civil Rights movement with the quasi-Marxist New Left politics of the sixties and seventies. At no point does the film ever give any indication that the filmmakers were aware of this element, much less that anti-Communist sentiment might explain, as much or more than residual racism, the opposition of many on  the Right to the Black Panthers, Jesse Jackson, and leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

Blame for this myopia may be laid at the feet of the screenwriter, Danny Strong, whose dedicated Left-wing politics are evident in the films Game Change and Recount, which he penned for HBO. Yet it is also to Strong's credit that, with The Butler, he has crafted a story that deftly avoids any easy answers, much less any of the sort of caricature that so marred the previous movies.

One notable example of the film's even-handedness concerns Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Despite the casting of über-liberal Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan (which has been much shouted about on the Right), the depiction of the Reagans is not only nothing close to antagonistic, it is quite sensitive and sympathetic. In some regards, Reagan comes across far more positively than, say, Lyndon Johnson, whose frequent use of the dreaded "N-word" is commented on directly. Reagan is shown to be personally generous, warm and empathetic, contra the fears of many that this film would turn out to be a hatchet job against him.

In the end, The Butler is worth seeing, especially for white, conservative audiences, because it gives an unusually clear window into a world and a set of experiences    which are otherwise inaccessible.  That it does so with grace and humor, and remarkably little partisan agenda (save for the Obama-loving ending), is noteworthy.

The Butler: 88% — B+

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