Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Butler (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by  Ian Brockway

Lee Daniels' The Butler

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a sweeping, hypnotic portrait of America that is as engaging as it is punchy.

Forest Whitaker is Cecil Gaines, a boy who was raised on a plantation in the 1920s during that time of a violent and hateful South. Cecil watches as his mother is raped and his father shot. He is taken in by a Mrs. Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) who is unaware of her racism. As a young man, Cecil takes to the roads. Gray and desolate buildings loom ahead of him like sinister monoliths, while the image of two lynched boys hang in front of him like spectres  of death. Cecil becomes the existential man, forced to become invisible. After stealing a coconut cake, he manages to take a job as a butler under the wing of Maynard (Clarence Williams III).

He succeeds.

Cecil takes a job with The Excelsior Hotel in Washington and then gets call from The White House. During an intimidating interview the dapper Freddie Fallows (Colman Domingo) looks at Cecil as if he were an alien  but ultimately hires him.

The film gets a subversive charge from its position that Cecil, by working within as a submissive butler, ultimately transforms society and banishes the execration of racism. The scenes of civil disobedience in which some young students are disgustingly abused are masterfully paired with Cecil serving Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and dignitaries under shining gold plates.

Prejudiced and bigoted white men depend on Cecil who has the upper hand. By being told to make the room empty, he is filled with everything.

While the parade of presidents is uneven in dramatic verve, with Eisenhower and Reagan tepid (and perhaps rightly so), there are some brilliant touches -- a manipulative Nixon (John Cusack) harassed by a fly, and a rude, racist and constipated LBJ who passes Civil Rights. Also dazzling in poignancy is the recreation of iconic albeit upsetting images: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) pensive and alone on a motel balcony, or a man trapped by a firehose, seconds before being attacked by a roaring and biting police dog.

The sight of Jackie Kennedy spattered with blood like evil syrup in her pink cashmere is quite visceral, as are the recreations of violence captured on the one monochrome eye of the television. The all seeing window of this new invention is coupled with Cecil's invariable stare: an odd mixture of passivity and shock floating above him to create a cloud of Damocles.

Cecil tries to rule with a John Birch  hand at home, ignoring the horror of Emmett Till along with the positivity of The Black Panthers. Cecil's wife (Oprah Winfrey) is loving, restless, and shifty by turns, entertaining a romp with a lazy scarlet neighbor (Terrence Howard). Winfrey alone has a potent final scene as she comically comments on her granddaughter as she shares a cup of tea with her husband.

While Cecil might try to emulate a 1950s Era sedate illusion with his sons in plaid starched shirts, real life is far from perfect, and Lee Daniels has some fine spontaneity here to contrast his somewhat Disneyesque hall of presidents. Each of the domestic scenes vibrantly illustrate a period, having something of the graphic power an Edward Hopper painting, alternately expressing motion and melancholy, as Winfrey is overcome by sadness and cat eye mascara.

Although it is highly in doubt that Reagan upheld Apartheid, Daniels captures Reagan's robotics well and Jane Fonda captures the whole of Nancy with just a few expressive details with a bounce in her red dress.

The life of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" ultimately stands with Forest Whitaker who plays Cecil as a kind of Kafkaesque hero-cypher who nonetheless seethes, and is sometimes stifled by, gross personal tragedy. As he irons a tie given to him by Kennedy, the straight path of the iron is symbolic of the voyage he travelled with the president. Cecil Gaines, who is based on the real butler, Eugene Allen, is a zen force of Horatio Alger momentum that we can all cheer for, once we see Cecil's slow and cindering smile, revealed between a pair of immoveable white columns.

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