Sep 06 2013
Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
For a few years, and especially during the summer, older viewers have complained that Hollywood no longer makes movies for adults, with studios putting most of their eggs in the summer blockbuster basket and hoping that two or three huge hits will earn them enough cash for the entire year. But with 2013 going down as the summer of mega-budget flops, studios would be smart to look for more adult fare like ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’, a film loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a black man who was the White House butler for 34 years across eight administrations. Made for a modest $30 million with a powerhouse cast, ‘The Butler’ has been #1 at the box office for an amazing three weeks riding critical buzz and strong word of mouth. But is ‘The Butler’ a historical epic capturing generational conflicts in the black community during the Civil Rights movement, or is it, as African-American actor Harry Lennix calls it, merely “historical porn”?
‘The Butler’ follows the life of Cecil Gaines, who’s played as an adult by Forest Whitaker. Raised in Macon, Georgia by sharecropper parents, Cecil is taken out of the cotton fields after a family tragedy by the estate’s caretaker and taught to be a house servant, learning skills Cecil takes to his jobs at a pastry shop and a Washington D.C. hotel before being hired by the White House in 1957. Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey) and has two sons, Louis and Charlie (played as adults by David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley). Cecil goes on to serve under Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (played by James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (played by Liev Schrieber), Richard Nixon (played by John Cusack), and Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman), while working alongside fellow servants Carter (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (played by Lenny Kravitz).
While ‘The Butler’ may seem to be about what it’s like for a black butler to witness history from the halls of power, the movie is much more about a father and son witnessing the battle for civil rights from differing viewpoints and generations. Cecil believes that things will slowly get better if black people work hard, avoid trouble, and keep their heads down and their mouths shut, evidenced by the great job and fine household he’s managed to attain, even if it means remaining silent when he could influence those with the power to enact change. But his son Louis, who had a comfortable suburban upbringing and looks down on his father’s subservient job, believes in a more confrontational route, taking part in sit-ins, becoming a Freedom Rider, being arrested multiple times, following Martin Luther King Jr., and even joining the Black Panthers.
In that sense, I understand Lennix’s claim that ‘The Butler’ is “historical porn”. From what I’ve read about Eugene Allen, he lived a very quiet, humble, drama-free life, consistently turning down book offers and speaking requests to dish on his time in the White House. But ‘The Butler’ often plays out more like a tour through the Worst Of 20th Century American Racism, starting with Cecil’s youth in the deep South, but mostly playing out through Louis as we watch him get beaten, hosed, screamed at, firebombed, and demeaned. While it’s important to remember the horrors of America’s racist past, we shouldn’t wallow in it, and ‘The Butler’ doesn’t give you any insight into it other than that it happened and we’ve come a long way since then. If Lennix wants to say that scenes of historical racism can be hackneyed and as instinctually and emotionally manipulative as scenes of horror or sex, he may not be wrong.
The bigger problem may be that ‘The Butler’ doesn’t adequately use Louis’ confrontational activism to better explore Cecil’s aversion to it, and how the silence and obsequiousness that serves Cecil so well as White House butler may be a survival mechanism created to deal with and mask both specific and cultural trauma, as it did for many black people in the Jim Crow south. While I agree with some of Lennix’s criticisms, ‘The Butler’ is easy to recommend for its ambition, scope, and its great performances. Besides, if someone stumbles on your HISTORICAL porn stash, it’s a lot less embarrassing.
‘The Butler’ is rated PG-13 and is in theaters now.