By Armond White
“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” says Clarence Williams III, instructing his waiter-trainee on the etiquette of black servitude in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s a funny line for this film since director Lee (Precious) Daniels always makes a big noise when he enters a room–this time releasing a film with his own name in the title same as Fellini’s 8 ½ or Tyler Perry’s Diary of Mad Black Woman no less.
How Daniels asserts/inserts himself into his films is crucial to the failings of…oh, let’s just call it The Butler. While Daniels purports to make a biography of Cecil Gaines, a Black Southerner who went from picking cotton in Georgia to serving as butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations, the film primarily displays Daniels’ opportunism. Taking advantage of our strange, polarized political moment, The Butler only makes noise about race–simplifying the history that Gaines lived through from Jim Crow to 2008–implying that Gaines’s story prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama. So soon after Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln, another foreshortening of American history.
The Butler’s major malfunction is its inexact parallel to Obama’s own biography; Gaines’s suffering through the post-slavery experience is completely different from Obama’s story. Daniels feeds the marketable concept that Gaines’s very particular sojourn represents the entirety of Black America’s struggle for equality. He distorts Gaines’s private life into a national epic, making him an emblem rather than a character.
Everyone here, from limousine liberal parade of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to the various Presidential caricatures (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman), look like waxworks. From the beginning, Forest Whittaker plays the title role as a gaunt, wizened symbol of oppression and endurance–a Morgan Freeman figure of quiet dignity and rectitude. His wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons (David Oyewelo and Isaac White) seem like appendages rather than family. Gaines’s estrangement from his world suggests a reverse Benjamin Button aging through decades, keeping quiet during eras of social turmoil. He—and this film–most resembles Forrest Gump, that symbolic idiot savant witness to social progress he played no part in.
The Butler is unconvincingly noble–without even that streak of psychotic behavior in the ridiculous shit pie scenes of The Help. Gaines is always crotchety and proper, leaving dirty-minded resilience to Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr in scene-stealing supporting roles–they’re surrogates for Daniels the salacious auteur who’s uninterested in what propriety and self-control mean.
Instead of a freaky-deaky view of the Civil Rights Movements’ behind-the-scenes hook-ups (even Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waves quotes Martin Luther King defending masturbation as a great release), we get an Obama-ized tale of Gaines as a dogged, enigmatic paragon. Rectitude as political caution was better dramatized in Brian Helgeland’s far superior Jackie Robinson story, 42. But this film is so solemn and disingenuous it neglects its opening thesis: Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong never confess what it feels like to make a room “feel empty” (although Whitaker’s zombie performance inadvertently gives an inkling). They trade the existential torment of self-abnegation (refuted by decades of Hollywood’s servile-yet-impudent stereotypes) for the cliche of long-suffering martyrdom. (Daniels lacks the honesty and talent to show what being close to power feels like.)
A more credible film would consistently portray the advice of Gaines’s father “Don’t lose your temper with the Man. Dis his worl’; we jus’ livin’ in it.” The Butler will feel inauthentic to most Americans who painfully, cagily work menial jobs; it is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment.
Daniels’ key trope is the presumptuous montage: Lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s contrasting formal White House dinner parties–pseudo-political juxtapositions that would make Eisenstein wince. Daniels uses montage for sensationalism–not feeling or politics. The entire film exploits subtle and overt American racial violence. The first striking image poses a lynching next to the American flag. Such cheap, Spike Lee rhetoric trivializes history. The 1929 flashback to Gaines’s mother being raped and father being killed isn’t just horrible, it’s an infuriating simplification: The son’s modern attitude shows ignorance of Southern custom; pressuring his father (“Pop, what you gonna do?”) is what gets his Dad killed. When titles say “Inspired by a true story” it merely means an anachronistic fantasy of Black American history adapted from Wil Haygood’s propagandistic Washington Post article (“A Butler Well Served By This Election”) celebrating Obama’s inauguration.
This fantasy includes casting Mariah Carey as the mother defiled and made crazy by the puzzlingly pretty white plantation-owner (Alex Pettyfer) and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s horny, boozing then devoted wife. Only Oprah–in a role better suited to Mo’Nique–could act self-righteous about committing adultery (dismissing her “yellow ass” lover). Oprah’s not a character but a Black Womanist Figurehead which places this film far outside the artful realm of Jonathan Demme’s magnificent Beloved. The subplot of Gaines’s conflict with his politically-wayward son merely extenuates the story without delving into the father’s painful, necessary political reticence. Worse, it misrepresents what Lorraine Hansberry explicated about the Black generation gap in A Raisin in the Sun.
Daniels panders to the hip-hop attitude that Black youth know more about survival than their hard-working ancestors. The scene of Gaines driving through urban chaos in response to MLK’s assassination is as phony as the riot scenes in Dreamgirls. Pandering to history and violence lacks the political detail of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther; this more resembles Tarantino’s unrealistic s&m circus Django Unchained. These discomforting prevarications are angled toward Obama’s “Tonight is your answer” election speech—turning historical pain into shallow, maudlin victory. Daniels’ tendency to falsify Black American experience and then exploit it is as offensive as Spielberg-Kushner’s factitious Lincoln. A more personally honest, openly licentious fantasy would be more interesting. Now that he’s played his Obama card, I’m sure Lee Daniels’ Satyricon will come next.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair