The Butler

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

7 March

 

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”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • 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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Butler – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy

 

 

 

You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Paperboy – at Amazon