Disclaimer: I’m white and I wasn’t alive during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.
It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina in 1987 that I even knew there was a difference between black and white. As a transplanted fifteen-year-old I was immediately on the perimeter of my new environment, an observer at best, but never assimilated.
- Why was there a high school populated by only black students? And why didn’t anyone else find this strange? And when the marching band from said “black school” performed, they didn’t actually play any music or march; they all set down their instruments on the field and then danced to the cadence of a well-populated drum line. When I asked why they weren’t following the same guidelines as the other marching bands in our district I was dismissed with, “Oh. That’s just they way they do it.”
- What were the reasons my younger siblings were being bussed across town to attend school when an elementary school was located one mile from our home? Didn’t we desegregate schools a long time ago?
- Why did all the kids separate themselves during homeroom, in between classes and at lunch like a Whitman’s Sampler box? Preps. Jocks. Nerds. Drama kids. Blacks.
I watched the trailer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler and immediately felt drawn to the theatre to see it.
Forest Whitaker is undeniably perfect as the lead and gives a spot-on performance as the complex, conflicted and proud Cecil Gaines.
If closing the chapter on the Oprah Winfrey Show opened a new chapter in Oprah’s acting career, then please more. She’s remarkable and brings such realness (can I say that?) to her role as Gloria Gaines.
Actor David Oyelowo delivers a powerful interpretation of the “prodigal son:” Louis Gaines (although we question who’s really the prodigal before the movie ends).
There are so many cameo performances I won’t take the time to list them, but they are at least fun to see, if not a bit distracting from the plot since you keep thinking about the celebrity and not the role they’re portraying. I will say that no one steals the spotlight. On-screen time is probably a five-minute maximum, if that, for any one of those roles.
I daresay that the performances aren’t remarkable at all. There’s nothing you’re going to see depicted in this movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. You’re not going to be swept up in a euphoric moment of Hollywood magic. No flashing lights or explosions of magnitude or riveting dialogue will have you spellbound. And you certainly won’t leave the theatre feeling better about yourself (if you’re white, that is).
It’s long (132 minutes), a bit slow-paced, sometimes feels repetitive in nature and the most action you see are news reels being played as if in real time.
So why bother? Isn’t it just another movie about the Civil Rights Movement with some extra hype because of the A-listed actors playing all the parts?
My conclusion is pretty much yes.
This is a movie about the Civil Rights Movement. And yes, there are Hollywood heavyweights playing the parts.
This is a story of the parts of America we tend to brush under the rug. The part of our history we excuse away because it was another time. The parts and pieces of a past whose consequences are still being felt by so many of our own. The ugly truth that we are quick to condemn others for doing yet can’t quite look our whole past in the mirror and accept. This is OUR story – the one we prefer to depict more comfortably with black caricatures like we saw portrayed in The Help.
I reviewed and loved The Help, but it lacked a lot. It still had at its center a white heroine come to save the day of the overworked and underpaid black woman. And all this time later, I am still disturbed that Aibileen, the true heroine of that (albeit fictional) story, was given as her quotable line a grammatically incorrect phrase that became the mantra and rallying point of movie-goers, book readers and meme creators everywhere: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
The Butler gives us none of that.
The Butler is boring. It’s not an engaging story. I knew I was in a theatre the entire time.
What The Butler does give us is real life family love, disagreement, opinions, conflict, laughter, division, hurts, addiction, loss, devotion to country, and ultimately reconciliation and all through the viewing lens of a hardworking black American family.
(It also gives us a biased and an unfair depiction of the white man and the Hollywood pendulum of unfortunate caricatures swings to the white end of the spectrum.)
Real life isn’t Hollywood. Real life isn’t glamorous. Real life hurts. Real life is rewarding. Real life is confusing. Real life takes time.
And real life – if we’re being brutally honest – is sometimes embarrassing.
I cried throughout this movie. There were scenes during which I cried more uncontrollably than others, but mostly I just cried silently, inwardly affected by my own confrontation with America’s ugly past.
What do I continue to confront with each new book or movie or theatrical encounter I have with the Civil Rights Movement?
Skin: the thin layer of tissue forming the natural outer covering of the body of a person
Truth: We bought, sold, owned, disowned, raped, murdered, lynched, maimed, abused (verbally, physically, sexually, and emotionally), tortured and condemned other human beings based solely on the color of their skin.
That’s it. That’s the crux of the matter, and it is that matter that never sits with me. I can’t comprehend it. I can’t excuse it or dismiss it. I can’t tolerate the footage I see of it. I can’t be anything but heartbroken by it.
And that is why no matter how poorly told is the story (because all versions have their flaws, inconsistencies and biases) – this story is ours to embrace with all its ugly parts, admitting faults and write new chapters with the ongoing storyline determined not by the color of one’s “outer covering,” but by the quality of a person’s inner parts.
So despite the long list of differences we might attribute to one another I choose to remember what H. G. Wells said:
“Our true nationality is mankind.”