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Film Commentary: Butler, bring me a martini

Herb Boyd | 9/19/2013, 1:58 p.m.
It felt rather strange watching a film that is essentially about the life of a butler who served seven presidents ...
Forest Cuba Butler

Since we had made up our minds not to travel to the nation’s capital to celebrate or commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, my wife and I marched off to the theater to see “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” When you are a so-called public intellectual, journalist, teacher and would-be screenwriter, there are certain imperatives that make seeing the latest African-American book, play or film a requirement, lest you miss out on all the discussions and rigmarole.

We were late catching up on “Django Unchained” and have yet to see “Fruitvale Station,” which may be gone by now. But when the film soared to the top of the charts—where it remains after weeks on the screens—and the arguments began to surface about “The Butler,” we knew it was time for us to work it into our busy schedules.

It felt rather strange watching a film that is essentially about the life of a butler who served seven presidents in the White House with the history of the Civil Rights Movement as an interesting subplot or leitmotiv while folks were assembling in D.C.

The life of Cecil Gaines, the butler, portrayed with typical bravura by Forrest Whitaker, unfolds against, as well as interweaves with, episodes from the movement, and the contrast between the supposedly “invisible” happenings inside the White House and the actions from Birmingham to Oakland, Calif., and the Black Panther Party is at times well-done, though little more than a tease.

Rather than evaluating the performances—which, for most of the marquee names except for Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, are cameo roles, particularly the presidents, whose relationships to the movement are a vital sprocket in the movie’s narrative thread—there are four things that caught my eye.

The movie opens with a cotton field scene where Gaines, as a boy, and others are dutifully at work while a young girl is taking pictures. This is quite incredible, and you wonder for what purpose because it’s in the 1920s, when Black American sharecroppers had not a pot to mess in or window to throw it out of, let alone the best camera of the day when most folks, if they were fortunate, had a Brownie Box camera at best.

Equally baffling was the brief scene where Malcolm X is cited as completing a speaking tour, though you never see or hear him, and you wonder where the two young lovers are when they hear shots and seek safety between two buildings. They appear to be leaving a church in a rural town, and because it’s February, it must have been when Malcolm spoke at Brown Memorial Church in Selma, Ala. But Malcolm’s moment gets but a passing nod.

Later, toward the middle of the movie, the butler is seen going through his son’s memorabilia and lifts a book, “Race, Reform and Rebellion” by the late Manning Marable from a box. Of all the books that could have been the prop, you wonder if it was merely arbitrary or if Marable’s name had gained traction and attention because of his biography on Malcolm X that provoked a firestorm of debate. We should also note that AmNews it was the Panthers’ 10-point program on a wall in several scenes might want to check a few books on the Party to get the real deal.

Finally, and the most engrossing moment for me—not that the movie was over—was the credit roll with Dinah Washington’s haunting version of “I’ll Close My Eyes.” Again, you wonder why this song was selected, though it may have been a conceit extended to the elderly in the audience, and the few in the theater with us offered a round of mild applause as they filed out of the dark.

This was a step, a baby step toward the kind of films I would like to see, something more solid and tangible, i.e., biopics of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Baker—you know the drill. Of course, they would require the right writer, director and cast lest they fall prey to the too-often terrible predilections of Hollywood hoodoo and that sound-alike word.

In the meantime, I guess we have to be content if we have to support the current crop of Black films at all and endure efforts like “Precious,” “The Help,” “The Butler” and … forget it, bring me a martini.