Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

I'm a sucker for historical drama: novel, documentary, made for TV movie, or a film that is preceded by Academy Award buzz. If the phrase "based on a true story" or some smattering of words similar accompanies the trailer description it is an almost absolute guarantee I'm going to see the film in theaters and at the very least pay a dollar at the RedBox when it finally gets there.

When I saw the trailer for Lee Daniels' The Butler many moons ago I knew upon first look I was going to see it as soon as it came out. Then I read The Washington Post write up of the man the film was loosely based on and I was sold before I'd even bought my ticket.

With all that pretext I'm sure you can already tell my expectations were high going into the film. But at the end of it all I felt like something was missing.



I did not dislike the movie. I did not think the movie was bad. (Granted I didn't think Red Tails was exceptionally bad either.) I just felt like something was missing.

The sharecropping scene in the beginning of the film set the stage for what was to become a compassionate yet complacent Butler throughout. Cecil Gaines moved from the field to the house through an unfortunate tragedy he was never to forget in his life. That tragedy traipsed around him like a ghost and kept him in the place of a "good house nigger" no matter how many African-American men he ran across who told him to think of more than himself than a brute servant in a human's mask.

I understand how tragedies of a person's past informs their present and future but to watch the decades and eras of American history progress in the film while the main character was complicit in his stagnation and stunted character development baffled me. As all the people around Cecil Gaines changed and evolved in opinion and outlook including The Butler's wife, children, and closest friends Cecil Gaines seemed to revel in being the polished and shined "Uncle Tom."

I do not use that term as an insult. I use it as merely a description of how complacent the central character this film was built around was portrayed. Cecil Gaines did push for better wages and promotions for the Black domestic staff at the White House but it was clear he was reluctant to ask even if the other domestics believed he was the strongest of them all. However, what I did enjoy was how The Butler's silence around the number of Presidents who passed through the White House somehow entrusted them to him and all of the Black community.

In the film Cecil Gaines was the constant African-American face who forced sometimes racist, bigoted, or naive machine politicians elected to the highest office in the land to confront their own issues over race, prejudice, and what could really be deemed humane. The film clearly illustrated the evolution of race relations through every man that stepped foot through the White House, but that illustration was not symbiotic as Cecil Gaines played the "good house nigger" sometimes in spite of the violently radical changes taking place around him.

The Woolworth sit ins, the freedom rides, the cross burnings, the lynchings, and all the horror that accompanied the fight for integration, the right to vote, and basic civil rights were not lost in the movie. They were ever present in the actions and constant arrests of the oldest and most militant son. The perfect antithesis to The Butler, Louis Gaines was defiant and demanded to be given the rights and freedoms he deserved by any means necessary, whereas his father Cecil Gaines was content in living a comfortable life he happened to be handed.

In totality the differentiations of thought in the characters served as a running conversation between generations of Black folk. The difference in beliefs of "old school" civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (pre-MSNBC) and "new school" civil rights leaders such as Philip Agnew (Dream Defenders) or a now resigned Benjamin Jealous.

My unease with the complacency of Cecil Gaines may have more to do with my status as a millennial than purely poor character development. However, what gave me great joy in the end was that the film left me with more questions than answers of the roles everyone in the African-American race played to get us to a day where the most powerful man in the world could have been sharecropper 70 years ago. The film also left me wondering where do we go from here? While the credits may have rolled with the events of November 4th 2008, there have been many events since that beg the question, "Have we achieved the equality our forefathers fought for, or will it remain an elusive phantom that is above the bar every time it's raised?"


QUESTIONS
1. If you saw The Butler did you enjoy it? Why or Why not?
2. If you refused to see the movie please explain?
3. Did the film paint an accurate depiction of the different roles African-Americans played in achieving their basic civil rights?
4. If there was anything at all you'd change about the film what would it be?
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