Friday, August 16, 2013

"Lee Daniels' The Butler": synoptic history of the Civil Rights movement, and the confluence of submission with "subversion"

"Lee Daniels’ The Butler" seems almost too hasty to be optimally effective; it might have well made a good television series.  It tells, loosely, the story of Eugene Allen, renamed as Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker. The film is based on a Washington Post article "A Butler Well-Served by This Election" by Wil Haygood in 2008, where the film ends with the election of Barack Obama. Some reviewers have noted that the biography takes episodes from the lives of several butlers, and is therefore composite. 
As the film runs through opening corporate credits (starting with The Weinstein Company), the speakers remains silent, and then the opening of the Schumann Piano Concerto rings forth.  Young Cecil  (Michael Rainey. Jr.) will see his attentive father shot on a Georgia plantation, for speaking out in a cotton field after the master (Alex Pettyfer) rapes one of the servants in a cabin.  The grandma of the house takes care of Cecil and teaches him to become a “house n___”, setting up his skill base for his “career” serving eight presidents.
The historical narrative is at times riveting, particularly when one of Cecil’s sons (David Oleyowo) becomes a freedom fighter, while Cecil watches with horror on television in the Kennedy White House.  The film pays particular heed to the Greensboro NC lunch counter sit in, and the lynchings in Mississppi (civil rights workers were murdered in 1964), and the Selma march in 1965.  The other son joins the Army and sacrifices himself in Vietnam,
The film does indeed develop the idea that sometimes “submission” or subservience is actually subversive.  I could offer my own take on it as someone who was “different” as a boy and teen in not being physically competitive with other boys, as I grew up in the 1950’s in the northern VA suburbs.  I was certainly sheltered from a lot of the evils of the world.  I learned about “Brown v. Board of Education” in a middle school classroom, but I really didn’t grasp the social inequality at a street level until my own Army service (1968-1970) and then as a young man, coming out (“a second time”) as “gay” in 1973.  It seemed as though I was supposed to be seen rather than heard because other, stronger boys might make “sacrifices” to protect me.  (I would have a “sheltered” MOS when in the Army;  the young men who serve in infantry in Vietnam were disproportionately black.)  I developed a certain attitude, where I expected to see the strength and virtue in others that I though had been demanded of me.  If I did not see it, I would not find another person worthy of love or personal attention.  I would tend to stay in my own fantasy world instead.   On the other hand, had I been physically competitive, I would have been able to “protect” others without disadvantage or “shame” and seen doing so as morally essential.   Once I could not do this, upward affiliation made more sense to me.  Society, it seemed, wanted me to “come to terms”, marry, and give it another traditional family anyway.  As an adult, it was difficult to find meaning in providing for others because I didn’t have a family of my own.  But that’s a “chicken-egg” problem.  Really, I couldn’t provide for others in a way that was expected anyway.
But Cecil Gaines does so.  He accepts his place in the world (in a way I would not), and eventually wins the respect of each president, to the point that finally Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, with Jane Fonda as Nancy) personally intervenes to give black staff equal pay.

Even the street activism of Cecil's son involves a certain submission to the goals of the group.
Oprah Winfrey is appropriate gritty as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, and ages to age 90 in the movie.  She stands by Cecil in dealing with the more rebellious son, who will not accept the “shame” of submission, and eventually joins the Blank Panthers before running for Congress.  It's a little disconcerting to see Oprah smoke cigarettes, even when acting.  

The film highlights the former use of the word "Negro" as being acceptable at one time, as with LBJ. 
This “independent” film has plenty of other A-list stars, including Robin Williams as Ike, James Marsden as Jack Kenney and Live Schreiber as LBJ.

The film was originally developed by Columbia and sold to TWC in a turnaround.  A dispute with Warner Brothers over a silent short film by the name “The Butler” led to the official placing of Lee Daniels’s name (without the extra possessive apostrophe) in the official title.  But normally in the film business, it is acceptable for different films to have the same title, as long as it is not a trademarked franchise of sequels.
The best official site that I can find is the TWC blog here

This film is said to be Oprah’s first major film role in 15 years.  Oprah did mention that she was fortunate to go to integrated schools when on ABC’s “The View” today.

I saw the film with a moderate Friday afternoon crowd at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield, VA today. 


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