Thursday, August 8, 2013

REEL DEAL: Moves that Matter review: THE BUTLER director Lee Daniels

The Butler dir Lee Daniel

As the nation is still reeling from the after effects of  the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial and is coming to terms with the realization that racial profiling creates a huge risk for youth of color and is part of the jim crow that Michele Alexanders writes about in her book THE NEW JIM CROW(, Lee Daniels 

steps up and answers back to the false reality projected by the award-winning film THE HELP about the lives of blacks in the South.

The Butler is based on the true life story of Eugene Allen. He worked at the White House as a staff member from 1952 to 1986, rising from “pantry boy” to the highest staff position of chief butler. It is written by Danny Strong, best known as  Jonathan Levinson, his role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and for writing HBO award winner Recount. His resourceful script covers the legacy of slavery and the impact of emancipation on black Americans as they became part of the US underclass and today are still stigmatized by the mental branding of slave culture.  Strong documents the rise from slavery to the complicated race relations that exist today even with a black President in the White House.

Using a docudrama form, Daniel’s raises the stakes in myth dispelling through truth telling as he has paints the ancestral history of plantation life and the master-landowner ability to both depersonalize and sexualize the “negro” and the
exploitation of a human being for his/her own use. We see early on how casual the power over life and death is implemented. We see the making of what some would call an “Uncle Tom” when a field “nigga” is brought into the home as a “house nigga” as Vanessa Redgrave brings to life a patrician, benevolent, racist plantation mistress.

Forest Whitaker plays Eugene Allen with the subservient demeanor of the good negro. Daniel’s uses the life of Allen as a fictionalized template to show how blacks have been treated by white people. By being invisible under the smile and “yes sir” in the same way Booker Wright in the documentary Booker's World showed us in the deep South

Allen is all service and no opinion at the White House.  He knows his place as do the other black butlers including Cuba Gooding, Jr, who lights up every frame he is in, and Lenny Kravitz.  He brings this same contained inner life to the world of his family. Oprah Winfrey

plays his booze loving, flirtatious but tenacious, family- loving, black matriarch with two sons to raise in Washington D.C. where race rules are still played out but with less transparency than in the Deep South.  

The Butler moves back and forth between Allen’s professional life – his rise in the butler hierarchy through a succession of presidents including JFK, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan (and the delicious, audience-pleasing game of who is playing who by stars such as Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and some of their wives including an anorexic Nancy Reagan played with what must have been an inner hoot by Jane Fonda and Minka Kelly

as a disturbingly real Jackie Kennedy) – and his home life with a loving but bored wife and two sons.

Daniels, with great skill, seamlessly moves through critical arch of historical moments by bringing alive through vivid actor portraits and archival footage the Kennedy and King assassinations, the rise of black power and Malcolm X.  A timeline when his sons were coming of age. His oldest son finds himself becoming a freedom rider and eventually a Black Panther follower. The son's politics are in direct opposition to the choices his father made to survive and provide for his family. As this tension flares up, it does not overtake the thematic movement of The Butler.  This father/son relationship is what roots the film in a narrative tradition rather than documentary storytelling and opens the door for millions of ordinary people to enjoy and find those parts of this specific story that triggers their own experiences.

This is popular culture making at its best.

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