The Butler

September 17, 2013 No Comments


Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” is an important film.  It has been labeled  “sanctimonious cartoon,”  “sentimental claptrap” and “feel good film for white elists.”   Who said making movies about race AND slavery in America was supposed to be easy?

Director Lee Daniels (remember “Precious”?) adapts the story of Eugene Allan, a black man who literally served seven presidents as a White House butler.  Forrest Whittaker gives a remarkable performance as Cecil Gaines (the renamed butler) who  worked his way through various administrations with quiet dignity (a guest list of stars play the presidents, which is distracting at times) while enduring the impact of racism in the White House, on the streets and at home.  Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Lenny Kravitz and David Oyelowa round out a supporting cast and provide depth and reasons to care about the film’s characters.  Preachy?  Maybe.  Melodramatic?  Perhaps.  Diluted?  Certainly.  It’s very difficult to present the topic of slavery to an audience hoping that America is already “post race.”  Racism as pure entertainment is as unbearable as sermonizing.  Daniels struggles to find a zone to share a story that resists telling.  He sometimes clearly misses the mark.  His portrayal of Gaine’s son as a Black Panther with a militant girlfriend seems insincere at times and rather cartoonish, but the tension between father and son captures an inter- generational struggle that still exists.

I saw D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous “Birth of a Nation” (1915) the evening before viewing “The Butler.”  The Griffith film is famous for its inventive camera work and editing and rightly so.  I had heard of the racist undertones of the film but was not prepared for the unapologetic hatred that fills the frames.  The film incites anger towards imaginary black villains who want only to rape (or worse yet marry) innocent white women.  The KKK is portrayed as a noble group of Southern gentlemen battling swarms of predatory blacks and “mulattoes.”  The sweeping crowd scenes, careful crosscutting, deep focus shooting and camera movement create a compelling work that seems as dangerously propagandizing as Veit Harlan’s hate-inciting “Jew Suss.”  More disturbing because it is about us.

Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” attempted to address our racist history by mixing real violence with ironic “phony” violence.  Steve McQueen’s upcoming “Twelve Years as a Slave” seems to attempt another star-studded straight-up attempt at slavery in America.

I won’t “spoil” the ending of The Butler by telling the ending.  Wouldn’t it be great, if after all that service, Cecil Gaines lives to see a black president in the White House?  It sounds too good to be true.  Fortunately for all of us it isn’t.  Daniels makes a good decision  choosing to have that monumental meeting between Gaines and the President happen off screen (no famous actor playing President Obama makes the whole thing MORE real).  It captures a historic moment in the way that film can.

“The Butler” is not a perfect movie.  It will fuel discussion and hopefully pave the way for more films about racism.  It’s time.

Jolyn Wagner




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