Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Butler Review




I went to see The Butler with a guy friend who is extremely intelligent, and he was intelligent enough to mention that watching a movie in a theater was not a great first date idea. Well, I really wanted to see the movie. So, anyway. We're sitting there chatting during the previews about random things and he randomly says, "I'm tired of all these slave movies." I didn't think The Butler was a "slave" movie, until the lights went dim and the opening scene made me gasp. I will try my best not to spoil the plot by offering a general summary:

The movie opens up with the main character (Cecil Gaines) in a cotton field as a little boy. He's enjoying a quality moment with his father, and his mother (played by a very white looking Mariah Carey) is nearby. The owner of the cotton field appears and forces Cecil's mother to join him in the shed. A loud scream is heard, which is an apparent sign that she was raped. Cecil then asks his father if he's going to do anything. His father yells toward the owner of the cotton field as if he is attempting to stand up for her. The owner pulls out his gun and shoots him before he has a chance to say what he was thinking about saying, right in front of his son, Cecil. An old white lady comes out to comfort Cecil and then tells him, "I'm going to teach you how to be a house nigger." The story then progresses to show how Cecil lived his life as an exceptional butler.

The opening scene made me very uncomfortable. Mainly because I watched a Black man allow his wife to be raped, bow down to the owner and then be shot dead while his son was witnessing it all. I can appreciate the overall message of the movie; the importance of showing how this butler successfully worked through 8 administration changes in the White House and pressed for wage adjustments as far as the Black workers were concerned. I just don't appreciate the fact that it kinda did play out like a "slave" movie. Cecil was a slave to his job, and his son grew to despise him for it. His wife (played by Oprah) mentioned that he cared more about the White House than he cared about her. She was right. We never got to see Cecil's emotional struggle; how his past actually affected him. He was headstrong on being a hardworking man, striving to provide a "better life" for his family. His older son leaves for college and rebels to become a Freedom Rider and a Black Panther. He is arrested multiple times.

One of the lines in the movie, said by the actor playing Martin Luther King Jr.'s role was something to the effect of, "Your father is showing what it means to be a hard-working Black man." However, his son remains embarrassed by his inability to stand up for what's right. Their conflict scene took me right back to the opening. Cecil was bowing down just like his own father, simply doing as he was told. When his youngest son decides to fight for his country in the Vietnam War, we see no interaction of Cecil trying to stop him, even though he admits that he didn't know why we were at war in the first place. There were too many emotional gaps. Too many failed opportunities for the viewer to be invited into Cecil's mind. He's narrating throughout most of the movie as his older self, but the story still lacked emotion from him as the main character. However, he did cry when his father died and when President JFK was assassinated.

We view his close relationships building with each POTUS, which coincides and clashes with his home life. All of Cecil's energy is focused on catering to the White House staff. The most personal scenes were depicted when highlights of the Civil Rights movement were shown. Most of these scenes occurred around his oldest son's rebelliousness. We got to see how "niggers" were treated when they refused to stick to the whites only code. These scenes also made me uncomfortable. I didn't understand the merit behind them. But, they were necessary to build upon and add to the movie's time frame. 

Nevertheless, I expected to see the truth and I expected to be educated. I was a little disappointed when I arrived home afterwards and read that most of the events of the movie in relation to Cecil's life didn't actually happen. They were added for a dramatic effect. The movie was loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, the real butler who actually did not grow up working in a cotton field, did not have two sons and was not actually "recruited" for the White House position.

For roughly 34 years, this Black man worked as a butler and that's really all the viewer got to see, since the majority of the scenes took place inside the White House. Other than the beauty of him being alive when a Black President was elected for the first time (years after he retired), I missed the real history lesson.

Grade: C