Thursday, January 16, 2014

OPRAH ASIDE, ‘THE BUTLER’ FAILS TO SERVE

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker
 as the Gaineses midway through "The Butler."
Film buffs and Internet historians have pretty much decided on their own, as I do here, that the name of the movie is “The Butler” rather than the contractually insisted insertion of the director’s name in the title.

Have you also noticed that despite the hoopla that surrounded its release, and extensive TV interviews around the memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., the movie has been shut out in the major Oscar nominations announced January 16? 

This was not only a sign of box office disappointment, which always affects the Oscar choices despite the aura that artistic quality is the decider. It was also a sign of artistic disappointment in an epic everyone wanted to succeed – a survey of 75 years of America’s struggle to rid the dominant white culture of what MLK among others described as a white sickness, not intrinsic white wickedness. (Though a horrifyingly vicious sickness.)

In one case, that Oscar snub is unfair.  Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance -- the butler’s wife devoted to middle class status, recipes, sewing, dancing and even drinking and sexuality until she lashes out as ferocious mother and appreciative defender of her husband -- is a remarkable series of spot-on vignettes. She captures again and again the various styles and chameleonic nature of the times.  

It’s far more than the cultural shock of “Good Lord -- Oprah’s smoking!” She should have been the movie’s dramatic touchstone, as should the other behaviorist performances of Terrence Howard and particularly Forest Whitaker communicating the butler’s two faces: Dignity and naturalness as a house servant and anger as the father treated as a paycheck Uncle Tom.

In fact, Whitaker struggles to return the film to its best basic concept:  A butler human in his behavior but trained to maneuver as unnoticed observer at the White House without direct response or political reaction to tumultuous events. Except the movie keeps inserting incidents where he is a participant, a trigger, a victim or out of touch older citizen in the turmoil of civil rights.

Even if you were empathetic through these decades, even if you respect those brief insights into how an entire race camouflaged true feelings and functioned on despite establishment attitudes, the movie is a distinct disappointment. It fails to consistently and progressively get underneath and inside, leaving us clinging to those acting vignettes where screenwriter Danny Strong, an actor himself, and director Lee Daniels gave the cast some room to behave naturally.  

Neighbor Terrence Howard attempts
 to seduce Oprah Winfrey in "The Butler."
But then Strong with heavyset words and Daniels with heavy-handed cutting take away those very insights. This is a Classics Comics treatment of important history, a gaseous fueled headline assault that seldom knows how to relax and let internal realities tell the tale. The production must underscore and punch hard every historic incident to the point of turning off both white and black audiences.  Yet no punch is needed to make us feel the power of Eisenhower stepping in to protect black schoolchildren or JFK getting shot. 

The defiance in the younger generation can’t just be perceived by the moviemakers. It has to clobber us. Butler Cecil Gaines’ oldest son must embody every flavor of rebellion – sit-ins, jailbird, Freedom Bus rider escalating into Black Panther and then “reformed” college student and member of Congress. In a telegraphed inevitability, the younger son laughs it all off and is killed in Vietnam.  

If there is dignity in house servants, if there was any refutation of bigotry in the ethics, skills and pride of the butler class, it has to be explicitly explained to the rebellious son in MLK’s motel room, of all places.  The audience must be told what to think, not allowed to think.

Profound moral contractions can be communicated without pounding social placards into the audience’s chest. If you doubt that, revisit the British “Remains of the Day” of 1993. It’s subtle to be sure, but fascinating how Anthony Hopkins as the devoted butler to an English lord playing footsie with the Fascists makes us fume with outrage at his indifference. It relies on good acting, quiet screenwriting and the audience’s intelligence.

“The Butler” is based on the true tale of Eugene Allen, a butler to eight presidents (truncated for time, thankfully, into five, with major acting names imitating the presidents – the real acting chops under the makeup falling mainly to Liv Schreiber as LBJ).  It correctly explores the historic emotional discipline and conduct code needed at the White House – (“You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve”). But even the White House echoes with pejoratives and pay discrimination.  The plot ties the characters’ progression to the major decisions being made and overheard by the butler from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon —concluding with how Ronald Reagan’s resistance to sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime finally brings  the butler’s family together again.

Liv Schreiber as LBJ
It is all too pat, a disservice to the controlled anguish of black society of all strata, a constant effort to rub our noses in the obvious injustices. There was a reason why it took a Washington Post story in 2008, when Obama was on the verge of becoming president, that we only then learned about the black butler who succeeded through humanity and invisibility to White House longevity, an admirable example but not an activist player.  

The director, who insisted this film be called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” has clearly put the wrong people first, and not just in the title.  If the movie had worked it didn’t need his name.  The film hurt its best acting moments, not because Oscar is forgetful but because the awards recognized Daniels’ failure to let tension speak for itself or grasp the difference between art and polemics. 

That explains the Oprah snub and why moviegoers and awards voters have gravitated toward the truer slice of history in Chiwetel Ejiofor (best actor nominee) and “12 Years a Slave” (best picture nominee), blocking out the deeply respected Whitaker and the steadily disrespected “The Butler.”

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other current Noth movie reviews on this domain include “Saving Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle.”