Friday, September 18, 2020

Serving Time with Lee Daniels' "The Butler"


With the upcoming presidential election high on our minds right now, it's no surprise I got interested in watching a 2013 film that boasts a pretentious title: Lee Daniels' The Butler. Daniels had won acclaim for directing 2009's Oscar-winning Precious. As the rare Black director to cause a stir in Hollywood, he perhaps added his name to the title of this movie as a way of encouraging investors with deep pockets as well as strong social consciousness to get involved. In any case, the film managed to raise its $30 million budget by appeals to 41 producers and executive producers, all of whose names appear on the screen in the opening credit sequence. The Butler was eventually distributed by the Weinstein Company, long before Harvey's sexual predilections caused a once-great career to flame out. So it goes.

In any case, The Butler, adapted from a 2008 Washington Post article, borrows from the life of an African-American man, Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from 1952 to 1986. Starting with the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, he wore formal dress to serve meals and otherwise act as an impeccably groomed retainer. Under Ronald Reagan, he and his wife were honored guests at a state dinner, making him the first White House butler ever to be so honored. It's a good story---but Hollywood was not content to keep it simple, stupid.

In the film, the Oscar-winning Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a version of Eugene Allen who also owes something to Forrest Gump. Everything happens to him. Beginning as a young sharecropper in a Southern cotton field, he sees his father shot dead by the evil white man who has just raped his mother. A semi-sympathetic Southern lady (Vanessa Redgrave, of all people) then takes him into the plantation house as a servant, teaching him genteel ways of bowing and scraping for his white betters. Eventually he grows up and moves on, marrying and fathering two sons. But so devoted is he to his White House obligations that his restless wife (Oprah Winfrey, nicely convincing) retreats into alcoholism and a dead-end affair. As for his sons, the younger -- a patriotic lad -- marches off to serve in Vietnam. (You just know he'll return in a casket.) By contrast, the collegiate elder son Louis  (David Oyelowo) becomes enamored of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. After he's participated in sit-ins and landed in jail, his activist spirit moves him to join the Black Panthers.

 Sometimes the playing off of a personal story against a public one is effective. For me the film's strongest moment comes as Louis and his fellow activists are manhandled by angry whites after trying to order food at a Louisville luncheonette. While they are being pelted with food and otherwise tormented, papa Cecil--resplendent in formal suit and white gloves--is helping to serve an elegant White House repast. Mostly, though, this race through late Twentieth Century history seems stilted: how much can we take of quick montages of the music, fads, and personalities of each era?  And what's Princess Diana doing there, anyway?

The Butler is probably most notorious for what we might call its stunt casting. Various American presidents are represented on-screen by famous Hollywood actors, most of whom bear little resemblance to the actual men they're impersonating. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? John Cusack as Nixon? Liev Schreiber as LBJ? The mind boggles, especially with the casting of Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and none other than Jane Fonda as Nancy. When faces (and voices) this familiar are presented on-screen, shouldn't they seem convincing?

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