My Review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Since some of you had requested my thoughts on The Butler, which I finally saw yesterday, here it is!
First off, what a weeper! I found myself tearing up at so many different moments (Spoiler Alert) – the sit-in scene, the assassination of MLK, the death of a certain main character. Of course, my feelings have been really frazzled on account of the rough, tough summer we’ve had: starting with the gutting of our Voting Rights Act in June, followed later by that horrendous not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in July, and then that atrocious porn video of one of my favorite black heroines in history, Harriet Tubman, just last week.
I’m feeling all kinds of way, truly worried about the future of both race relations and gender relations in this increasingly racist and misogynistic society of ours. How, indeed, will David fit into this cultural environment when he returns next year? Can he still bring the light?
Well, with these sorts of emotions, no wonder I was so weepy. Because, if I were in a different mood, I wonder if I would have cried so much. I thought The Butler did a wonderful job of summarizing the history of the 20th century struggle of African Americans through the focus on one family, supported by a man whose work as a butler (and in the White House no less) kept them above the fray. The movie works to redeem and honor the countless black men and women who served in these positions (oftentimes the only work available to African Americans pre-Civil Rights era). It’s work that was meant to “demean” African Americans, so Daniels’ attempt (and Forest Whitaker’s portrayal) does much to bring honor to that role.
Most importantly, I think it helps to really see the lives behind these servants, who are often reduced to decorations in white films, or catalysts in films like The Help, servants who are there only to help white people through a moral crisis of some sort.
In that regards, I appreciate what The Butler tried to do.
But this is Lee Daniels, and subtlety is not his strong suit. That early “rape and murder” scene at the beginning, as well as the in-your-face depiction of a lynching, was so awkwardly done (and Mariah Carey’s acting so wooden) that it made me cringe. And it happened early enough in the movie to make me worry that I would hate the film.
But the lack-of-subtlety worked well for this sentimental drama that really seemed to hit home and remind a contemporary audience – still reeling from the harsh pins of racism that have burst our Post-Racial bubble – that there is so much more work to be done, but at least let’s appreciate the hell from which we’ve come.
Recreating the night of Obama’s election, once again, brought tears to my eyes, for I remembered that moment vividly (and it was bittersweet thinking of the promise of that moment to the failure of now).
More than anything, this movie was a good emotional catharsis, but some over-the-top drama (and a ridiculously sentimental movie score) prevented it from sailing smoothly. Oprah was great in her role, but I wish Forest Whitaker brought more nuance to his portrayal.
Another movie that I think was much more subtle but still quite emotional in its delivery is the film Fruitvale Station, which I saw last month. It was sobering because I saw it not long after the Zimmerman trial and covers similar material about an unarmed young black man gunned down due to racial profiling.
The black struggle continues, but I’m grateful for movies that can still bring back the humanity to our lives.