Film review of The Butler

November 13, 2013

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda

Despite its many charms, the film “The Butler” struggles to capture American political, social and cultural history from the 1950s to the present day.  It’s a well-meaning and frequently enjoyable film with an all star cast, loving period detail (down the uniforms worn by 1960s US postal workers) and a genuine affection for both its topic and characters.

At 132 minutes, “The Butler” is both too long and too short, defeated by the task it has set itself – a virtual history of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of one man.  That man is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, whose dignified performance is surely ripe for an Academy Award nomination – and the film is worth seeing for Whitaker’s acting alone.  He’s a black man who becomes a butler in the White House in the 1950s, and witnesses Presidential history first-hand through numerous administrations over more than thirty years.  The film is based on a true story of Eugene Allen, the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post on the eve of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

Growing up in the rural south prior to World War II, Cecil (spoiler alert!) witnesses both the rape of his mother and murder of his father by a white southern landowner.  Taken in by a kindly old southern matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he learns how to be a “house nigger” (the movie’s term, not mine), carefully and quietly serving the white plantation owners.

To survive as a black man in 1950s and 1960s America, Gaines needs to keep his emotions in check.  He finds his way into bar tending, then a fancy Washington DC hotel.  From there he is recruited to serve as a butler in the Eisenhower White House.

All of Gaines’ fellow butlers are black men.  He works there for the next thirty-plus years from Eisenhower (played by an unusually low-key and badly cast Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden, who sounds the part does not look it) to Johnson (Liev Schrieber, who tries hard, but never reaches the “larger than life” sense of his character) to Nixon (an incongruously cast John Cusack, who appears to have lengthened his nose for the part, and does a valiant but unsuccessful job at capturing this most complex of presidents) to Reagan.  Ford is barely mentioned and I do not recall Carter appearing.  You see what I mean?  The enormity of this topic conspires to defeat the film-makers’ best intentions.

The Butler  2013(photo: Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman)

Ronald Reagan is played by British actor Alan Rickman, the most successful presidential portrayal.  How is it that Americans can play Brits and Brits play Americans so well – think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln?  Worth pondering.  Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, in one of the “The Butler’s” best in-jokes.  Fonda was once one of the most radical actors, including a notable visit to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  So when Fonda plays a iconic conservative First Lady, the result is, well, slyly funny.  She’s also devilishly good in the cameo role.

Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria, who is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Younger viewers may not recall that Winfrey has had an illustrious acting career, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, as well as starring in “Beloved”.

Cecil and Gloria have two kids:  Charlie, the younger (Elijah Kelly), goes to Vietnam.   Louis, the older one (David Oyelowo), lives through a breath-taking sequence of historical events (Forest Gump-like):  He is a “freedom rider” for civil rights in the south in places like Birmingham, Alabama, is arrested sixteen times, joins up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and even sits with King prior to King’s assassination in Tennessee.  He later becomes a radical black activist, helps to found the Black Panther Party and has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Angela Davis.

Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis) supplies a useful dramatic addition to the story.  When Louis embarrassingly says to King that his father is just a butler, King gives an articulate defense of African-American butlers and maids.  As the Salon review summarises:

Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights….  Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal….  In maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive.

Did King ever say this?  I have not been able to find it, at least not yet.  But the point of the film is that King COULD have said it, even if he did not.  It’s at this point that “The Butler” starts to gain some of its power that it has given away through too much narrative and incident.  If, like me, you lived in the United States during the development of the Civil Rights movement, “The Butler” may have special meaning.  It dramatises many of the events, including some we can only guess at (how various Presidents dealt with the race issue), and ultimately is both moving and memorable.

Gaines lives long enough in the film (as did his inspiration Eugene Allen) to see Obama elected to the Presidency in 2008.  Thankfully, we are spared an Obama appearance – although Orlando Eric Street was originally cast to play the current President, but does not appear.  (Apparently Barack Obama turned down the invitation to play himself.)  Plenty of time left for that.

The Butler poster

*****

Footnote:  Will Whitaker win an Oscar for his role?  His character – ageing about sixty years throughout the course of the film – is just the sort of role that the “Academy” loves.  But here’s a prediction: he is nominated but does not win, losing out to someone in a “flashier” film such as Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips”, Robert Redford in “All is Lost” or – most likely – Chiwetel Ejiofer in “12 Years a Slave”.

Trivia corner:  A few years ago, Whitaker turned down the chance to play Obama in the film “My Name is Khan”.

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Your summer reading list

November 30, 2012

It’s summer here in Australia.  Or, technically it will be here in Sydney in about ten minutes, once the clock strikes midnight to December 1st.

Each year the non-profit Grattan Institute publishes its “Summer reading list for the Prime Minister”.  And they have just published this years list.  It’s an interesting mixed bag, with six books (as well as seven articles), all non-fiction and mostly with an economic tinge.  That’s Grattan’s focus, although I would have liked to see something a bit more creative, as I fear that our Prime Minister (and almost all parliamentarians in Australia) are not reading enough creative works, thus possibly limiting their imagination.

Of the six books, I suspect that Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and An Angry Nation – originally published in June – probably is the most direct (and “on the mark”), but it is all about politics ….  There is also Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, intellectually challenging in a good way.

But all still a bit … uncreative, at least for me.

My own list to come soon.


Obama’s popularity in Australia

August 28, 2012

It’s official.  If Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney in Australia, Obama would win by an historic landslide.  As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald today (Tuesday, 28 August 2012), an online poll by UMR Research discovered that 72 percent of Australians would vote for Obama and a miniscule 5 percent for Romney.

I could have told you that.  As a long-resident Australian from the USA, I have found that Obama is possibly the most popular politician I have ever seen … in this country.   My public expressions of support for Obama – from the moment he entered Australian consciousness in early 2008 during the Democratic primary elections – have been met with universal approval here.  That’s never happened to me before. And it’s not like Australians actually like politicians.  Plenty of people here in Australia strongly dislike both the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

But Obama haters in Australia?  I have not found one yet.  In fact, the Herald article quotes Geoff Garrett, Head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, reporting that during the 2008 American Presidential campaign, “Australia was the third-most pro-Obama country in the world, behind Kenya and Italy”.  (Kenya okay, but Italy?)

Why is this?  No one I know can give a satisfactory answer.  But the survey has stimulated renewed interest in US-Australia political comparisons, including one by Peter Hartcher, the International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.  In the same paper, Hartcher writes in an “op ed” that Australia is much more “left-leaning” than the US, is “the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave” and “does not pay child support to all families”.  As proof of the triumph of conservatism in the US, he quotes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, British commentators whose book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America examines the phenomenon.

I think that Hartcher, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are missing an important point, one that is less about American politics and more about American society.  The USA is, at heart, a deeply individualistic country, from its very early settlement.  Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Hearts of America, and the late Joe Bageant wrote about this in Deerhunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Ironically, Bageant’s book was, per head of population, MORE popular in Australia than the USA.)  I think that many commentators are confusing America’s die-hard commitment to individualism with conservative politics, Australia and British style.  The success of American commitment to the individual is reflected in its popular movies, a large number of which are about individual achievement and triumph over adversity (let’s think The Blind Side)

Pop quiz:  Which country’s leader is publicly committed to gay marriage – the USA or Australia?  Not Australia, whose unmarried Prime Minister lives with her de facto partner, but implacably opposes gay marriage.  Hmmm. It’s President Obama who supports it.  Which country still has widespread rent controlled apartments (deemed true “socialism” by many commentators of a conservative bent)?  Last I looked, it was the USA, with numerous cities participating, notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and numerous smaller communities.  The “Global Property Guide” deems the US far more “pro-tenant” than Australia.  So not everything fits so neatly into a British-Australian attempt to cast Americans as the conservatives in all things.  It’s far more complicated than that.

Postscript: Thursday 30 August 2012 – My letter to The Sydney Morning Herald responding to Hartcher’s Op Ed was published today.  Here is a link.  Mine is entitled “It’s complicated”, and is about 2/3 down the page.


Nicholas Rothwell and the failed state

October 27, 2009

In my decades of reading Australian newspapers, I have never come across a more damning and fascinating piece of analytical journalism than Nicholas Rothwell’s article “The Failed State”, in The Australian newspaper of October 24, 2009.  Rothwell has been The Australian‘s northern Australia correspondent for some years and is the author of two books on the topic, and – unlike most journalists – truly has spent much time travelling and experiencing his enormous “beat” of the Top End.

Here is how Rothwell starts:

In Australia we are used to seeing progress in governance, not failure.  We expect governments in our jurisdictions that function well, provide efficient services, and maintain a fair match betweent the rhetoric of politics and the facts on the ground.

There is, though, a failed state in our midst.  That state is not Aboriginal north Australia, where the social fabric is in shreds and tatters.  No: it is the jurisdiction largely responsible for entrenching this degree of indigenous disadvantage:  the modern-seeming, self-governing Northern Territory.

On the face of things, all the standard attributes of a democratic society are present here in Darwin: a parliament, political parties, government departments, a range of key social institutions that look much like their southern equivalents.  But in fact the Territory is best understood as an interlocking set of interest groups.  It is heavily dependent on outside funding, the bureaucracy is shot through with politics, almost all medium-sized business relies on public sector contracts and the entire system is founded on the administration of an Aboriginal underclass.

This is an extraordinary set of claims, and we will see what sort of impact Rothwell’s criticism may have.

Update November 1:  On October 31, Rothwell published his second article in this series in The Australian, entitled “Giving It Back:  A Revolution in the Bush”.  One of his conclusions:

We stand at a point of redesign for the remote NT.  It is a defining point for the federal government, and for the Prime Minister, whose one great weakness is his portfolio of dying indigenous initiatives.

Worth reading.