Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 October 2013

A Dialogue on the Butler

I've been having trouble articulating how I felt about The Butler. I enjoyed some of it, but was mostly frustrated with its oddities. So I asked my friend Carlos to have a conversation with me about the movie, in the hopes that I would be able to get clearer about how I felt about the movie.

Aaron: I've been calling Lee Daniels' movies "messy" for a while, and I know he hasn't made that many (Shadowboxer, Precious, The Paperboy), but that is really what stands out to me about this picture and the others. The tone of the The Butler is constantly shifting. There is a disjointedness about the movie. The characters don't feel somehow "themselves", as though they change who they are from scene to scene. This was especially true for Yaya Alafia (Carol) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter). Now, it may be that good acting saves most of thee characters – makes them feel more the same from scene to scene – but that certainly is not the case with Carol and Carter. The film obviously shifts tone wildly, too.

Carlos: Lee Daniels does a few things really, really well. And the one thing that I think he does consistently is pull out transformative performances from his actors. He does this through what seems to be a highly counter-intuitive method of intentional miscasting. Mo'Nique in Precious. Everybody in The Paperboy. And Oprah in this (who turns out to be the shining star of this movie, but never in a million years would she have been on my cast list). But Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King was cast perfectly. No argument there.

Mr. Gooding as Carter
Aaron: The other thing is that this is really a kind of Forrest Gump romp through USAmerican history, and so the movie is necessarily sort of shallow.

Carlos: I think most of the problems in Lee Daniels's The Butler (do I have to call it that?) stem from the script. I think, at the heart of it, there is a strong story about race and America's rocky relationship with change. It's also hard to deny that it comes at a time where race and civil liberties are at the forefront of many Americans' minds, and that lends the film a lot of power that it may not have had otherwise. That being said, I agree completely with your Forrest Gump analogy. I had the chance to read an earlier draft of the script before the movie was made and I'll say that the same problems that existed in the script existed on screen. So there's your lesson for the day, aspiring screenwriters: you can't just fix your problems in production. More than anything for me it was his over-reliance on voice-over and jarring transitions between time periods that sunk the movie for me. But the picaresque approach to the story really only gave you a shallow view into the racial politics of the star-studded presidential menagerie, often boiling down their racial politics to a single scene. I actually found the son's journey much more interesting than the butler's. But maybe that was the point.

Aaron: It wasn't the point. The film focuses on the father's half of the father-son relationship. And I think that was sort of the problem – David Oyelowo's character was just more interesting. He plays it beautifully, I thought. Totally boyish and then grown and fascinating. I did want to note one scene that looked really great: the dinner sequence in the White House contrasted with the lunch-counter violence. That was a great juxtaposition. And if I thought his character disjointed, I should also say that I loved Cuba Gooding, Jr. in this. He is a confident performer, and I understand that he is constantly asked to play silly clown characters, but I know guys like him. I felt like I knew Carter, and Gooding approaches a guy like that without judgment (unlike an actor like Terrence Howard).

Mr. Oyelowo as The Butler's Son
Carlos: It also looked cheap.  Did it look cheap to you? 

Aaron: It did look cheap! Why did we both think that? Was that because we saw so little of the White House? 

Carlos: I didn't mind not seeing the White House. It was the lighting. Everything had this fuzzy, soft look and I think it was there because Daniels needed to cover up for the fact that whenever possible he was trying not to use age makeup (I sourced this from a couple of interviews) and the age makeup they did use looked terrible. You would think with a 30-million-dollar budget they could make it look spectacular, but that's what you get when you hire every A- to B+ list actor to fill out your presidential pool.

Ms. Fonda & Mr. Rickman as the Reagans
Aaron: As relates to this casting question, I feel strange about it. This is a sort of Hollywood thing, right? This anticipation we get to have and the pleasure we receive from playing Guess which famous movie star will be playing each president and first lady? It draws away from the film as a document of a historical period and makes everything seem slightly more, well, fake, while at the same time it is totally fun to see Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda play the Reagans.

Carlos: It was gimmicky, and it often took me out of the movie, but it was exactly as you say. Totally fun to see Rickman and Fonda as the Reagans. But I think these choices go back to Daniels' reliance on camp. Which isn't a bad thing. It's just a thing. And it doesn't always work well with the tone of his movies. The Butler becomes more of a spectacle when you have this star-studded cast filling out minor roles. This is a bit of a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it's distracting. You're wondering if Cusack's nose is Nixonian enough, or if LBJ is indeed Liev Schreiber or someone else, or about just how much the right wing is incensed by Jane Fonda playing the wife of the second coming of Christ. But maybe that's the trick? Because you're being distracted by this spectacle but it pulls your focus away from the holes in the script momentarily.

Aaron: I love that you said that this celebrity-sighting thing is actually about camp. Of course you are correct! I hadn't really thought of that, but you are absolutely right. It's just that the film doesn't really want to be campy. Or that the camp sensibility is married in an uncomfortable way to the kind of sentimental narrative for which people like Zemeckis or Ron Howard are known. The two ways of storytelling really conflict quite strongly, and though I enjoyed the campy parts, they made me feel uneasy because I never quite dropped into the sentimental sections of the film. 

Carlos: Speaking of cheap. Can we talk about the ending? 

Aaron: Haha. Do you mean the way that The Butler behaves as though every single issue for which black people have fought in the U.S. is automatically solved by the election of a black president? It is a curious project of forgetting in a film that would appear to have been all about actively remembering precisely those struggles. I do, of course, agree with the sections with MLK where he talks about black domestics, etc. I think that kind of analysis is helpful and super-smart. But the film wants to be about the United States presidents' struggles with racism, and in the end the film pays more attention to the changes of conscience those white men have than it does to either the black domestic at the film's center or the angry black revolutionary who is his foil. 

Carlos: I think you hit the nail on the head. Remember, this was written by a white guy, Danny Strong (of Game Change and Recount fame), and while Lee Daniels really did his best to punch up "the black experience", it only felt genuine in the scenes taking place in the home. I'm looking at you, get-that-cheap-trifling-bitch-outta-my-house scene. But as it stands, the rest of the movie was like watching 15-minute snippets of Lincoln. You know the president has already made up his mind, things are shitty and need to change, and that there is an entrenched force of racists that refuses to budge. And maybe it's just the cultural lens that I'm viewing the film through, but I did want to see more about what shaped the various presidents' views on race. Instead I got a direct set up "problem" and pay off "how they fixed the problem". It got kinda monotonous. (I actually did a double feature with this and The Grandmaster and they had a lot of similar structural problems, except The Grandmaster was shot beautifully and it had punching, so it was more engaging.)

My biggest issue with the ending – and it was the same issue that I had with the script – was that it needlessly politicized a story that should have been for all of us. Now it's for less than half of us. While I understand the importance of button-ending the movie with the election of Barack Obama to reinforce the "see how far we've come" theme, it irked me. Not that I give a shit what the right wing thinks, but this film could have been (and I am being generous using "could") a great cultural touchstone that turned the mirror back on us to ask us how far we've come, but persists in telling us that we still have a long way to go. 

Aaron: I think the ending does precisely the opposite. Maybe this is my inner black panther speaking, but when we think of having a black president as the end of anything, I feel like it tells us that racial oppression is basically over. Seen in this light, the struggles that the film describes feel, by the end of the movie, as though they have actually ended in real life. I am surprised you saw the film in the opposite way. 

Carlos: I guess I was unclear. What was delivered is exactly what you say. But I wanted the ending to acknowledge that this struggle clearly isn't over yet. The ending, as is, feels like the "white guilt" version. I know that Daniels had to do a heavy amount of cuts right at the end, so I wonder what may be lost in the digital trash bin.

Queen O knockin' it out of the park

Aaron: In any case, the film is uneven at best. I think if it's worth seeing it's for the game of spot-the-celebrity and for Oprah Winfrey, who is her own epic version of spot-the celebrity. She is fabulous in The Butler, but it is also impossible to forget that she is Oprah: she's one of the most well-known women in the world. As it happens, she is also a great actress, and it is fun simply to watch that. 

Carlos: Agreed. Uneven, but ultimately worth seeing if not for the fact that we don't get many big theatrical releases that even attempt to discuss race in any sort of meaningful way. And yes, Oprah was and is the #1 reason to see it. For the camp spectacle of seeing Queen O dressed down and lookin' rough, as much as for her spectacular performance.