A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Police attack Alabama marchers, 1965
On this day in 1965, a day that subsequently became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators outside the town of Selma, Alabama. Between 500 and 600 demonstrators were marching to protest against the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who had been shot by a policeman after a previous civil rights march on 18 February. Any grouping of more than three civil rights campaigners had been declared illegal by a judge, and the local governor, George Wallace, went on to declare the march a threat to public safety. At Edmund Pettus Bridge the marchers met state troopers, backed up by the large number of white males who had been deputised only that morning. At the bridge the commanding officer ordered the demonstrators to go home and refused to discuss anything with the leader of the march, Reverend Hosea Williams. The troopers attacked the demonstrators, hospitalising 17 and injuring many more. The publicity generated by the event ensured that the next march, held two days later and led by Martin Luther King Jr, would be attended by nearly four times as many people.
The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)
The Butler is an example of a genre that’s usually stacked with well fed white people – the heritage drama – stacked with well fed black people. But being a story about black people in recent decades it inevitably dips into waters more political than you usually find in your average white heritage drama. It’s about the slow emancipation of black people, in other words. And following the old newspaper maxim that the best way to cover any awkward subject is to turn it into a human interest story, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong focus on the figure of Cecil Gaines, the poor black kid from the cotton-picking South who served in the White House in a variety of domestic roles for eight presidents from the 1950s onwards. A 50something Forest Whitaker struggles to look young under the presidency of Eisenhower, as the rookie butler who has swapped a life on the plantation – his mother raped, his father murdered – for the more genteel environs of the White House. But as we move on to JFK and Johnson, the age gap fades into insignificance as the butler butles (or whatever the verb is) invisibly while the various leaders of the free world discuss pressing events. Meanwhile, at home, Gaines is a severe but affectionate husband (to excellent Oprah Winfrey) and a tough-love dad struggling to bring his kids up to share his gradualist view of history. But one of his kids, brought up in the progressive, combative 1960s, becomes actively involved in the civil rights struggle. Too actively, as far as his father is concerned. Can a butler, a servant, make a contribution to the struggle? Is the “house nigger” (as Gaines is described early on) a man at all? These are the film’s big questions.
The answer is yes, as you might imagine. Don’t bother watching if you have any residual affection for the political stance of the Black Panthers, and other radicals who took more direct forms of action to secure their political objective. They’re not treated well. Not treated fairly, in fact. But though it would be easy to dismiss the film as a conservative screed, it’s the attempt to reconcile the twin prongs of black political progress that make it interesting.
Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by a Washington Post article about the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen, and together with director Lee Daniels he commits some of the cardinal sins of biopics – he tends to tell us stuff we already know, a tendency shared by Rodrigo Leão’s score, which also isn’t above deploying the musical equivalent of emoticons. Of the presidents, they’re all interesting in their way, though none has more than a blur-on appearance and a couple of lines to say. Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, surprisingly enough, fares best of the lot of them, all twinkles and folksy avuncularity. But Daniels’s strength as a director is in co-ordinating groups of people, of keeping a lot of balls up in the air. It’s an assured piece of storytelling which only now and then heads into melodramatic territory, which as we know from Precious and The Paperboy is Daniels’s special area of expertise.
Look out for Jane Fonda – Hanoi Jane back in the day – as Nancy Reagan. That’s a joke, a conservative joke, the casting equivalent of a “not so radical now, Jane, eh?”. We live in different times, Lee Daniels’s times, not Hanoi Jane’s. “Slowly slowly catchee monkey”, that’s the film’s message. Or maybe “they also serve who only stand and butle”.
- See Forest Whitaker once again subsume himself to his role
- The stunt casting of the presidents – John Cusack as Richard Nixon!
- A history of the civil rights struggle from a different perspective
- Great support from the likes of David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia
The Butler – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014