Monday, August 19, 2013

The Butler Almost Did It

"Lee Daniels' The Butler," certainly had its work cut out for it.  The film is an earnest attempt at telling the story of the civil rights struggle through one man and his family's own journey from "plantation" to freedom.  Unfortunately, the moviemakers picked the one character least able to tell of that journey: a 35-year veteran White House Butler, a man superbly trained up in a service (and in an era) that required a servant (like a slave) to be invisible, to be erased, so be so not-there that you would have no presence in a room: not seen, not felt.

The composite character created by screenwriter Danny Strong , very loosely based on real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, and played by Forest Whitaker, is too often simply not there.  Even when he's off duty, Whitaker spends most of the film simply looking blank.  Which is a problem since the screenwriter was attempting to tell two civil rights journeys: the historical outer one and the personal, inner one.  Whittaker's a very fine actor, but film is a visual medium that doesn't do well at showing inner states of being.  And making manifest inner worlds and inner transformations is pretty hard to do when your main character's essence is a void.  

Unless you use voice-overs, which are always clumsy and by the end of the film I suspect the filmmakers realized even this wasn't working very well so they stuck a few scenes in at the end of the movie designed to show the Butler getting his own transformative, consciousness-raising "wake up" call, but by then the film's nearly over and it's way too late.

Like all biopics, "The Butler," like the recent "42," the Jackie Robinson story, is a worthwhile, earnest attempt to frame both a personal story and an historical one.  And "The Butler" is reasonably effective in intercutting a personal story, a family story, a generational father/son conflict story as it plays out with and against unfolding historical events. (There were so many fictions added to the real story that I thought it would have given the movie greater freedom had they just made up a totally fictional character.  Sometimes, in trying to honor the truth of a real person, a greater "truth" is lost.)  And, like all biopics showing a character's life, the film was too often stuck with the cinematic dullness of the calendar:  "Then he did this, then he did that, and Oh, look it's President Johnson, now it's Nixon, (with a wonderfully creepy John Cusack), then this happened, then that, and some of this." (Another reason to go with a fake character: you're not stuck with linear "historical" reality.)

However, in one particularly powerful passage, the director effectively and seamlessly juxtaposed Whitaker serving at a White House dinner -- all placid silence and pristine glitter -- while his oldest son (beautifully played by British actor, David Oyelowo)  is being trained to and then endure the sit-ins at a Montgomery lunch counter as part of the Freedom Riders, all of whom are being assaulted by ugly racists in a chaotic scene of fear and growing danger.  It was an extremely powerful example of  cinematic story-telling at its best:  nearly exposition-free images of two parallel universes moving into collision.

So far, the stats on "Lee Daniels' The Butler" are quite good for a biopic; not a mega-hit but not a bomb either. When I went to the Sunday show at the underground theatre, there were about 60-70 people there, most all of them Baby Boomers. (Far more than were at a screening of "Fruitvale Station", a far better film.)  For them, I suspect the pull was Oprah and a trip down a sort of memory lane.  And the Treyvon Martin zeitgeist. (The film made several oblique references to the Martin case, a sad indication of how much has changed and how little has changed in 45 years.) 

And, like all biopics, especially biopics of Black History, the people who should see the film, won't.  And that includes young people who have no clue of what happened years ago when an astoundingly brave black woman sat down on a bus, and few incredibly brave young black (and a few white) students sat down at a lunch counter, asked to be served, and thereby transformed the country for the better. And for those of us of an age to remember this history, this is a good film to see to remind us what it was like and what too many in this country are too willing to deny or forget, since it was so awful.

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