The Butler Did It
©2013 by Alice walker
Lee Daniels’ The Butler was received in my neighborhood by a packed house, all colors and kinds, almost all of them, at different points, talking back at the screen in some fashion. At the end, there was a rousing, heartfelt offering of applause. The enthusiasm is well deserved because the acting, everyone’s acting, is superb. Superb also is the courage to depict realities in our past that don’t often, if ever, make it to consciousness, not to mention to the screen. For example, there is that haunting early scene in which the son of the plantation owner (I’m guessing he’s the son and not the father) rapes his pale skinned sister, who happens to be the mother of Cecil Gaines, the butler -to- be. When her husband, prodded to make a stand by his young son, utters a single sound about what has happened, the white man, clearly a sociopathic crazy person as many slave owners and over-seers of slaves and later of sharecroppers had to be, shoots him dead.
This reminded me of a story my mother told me very late in her life; late, because it was apparently an unspoken rule among many Southern black people not to talk about white people, at all, especially to their children. It was about how she and her five sisters avoided being raped by white men on their way to or from church. It was understood that her six brothers, who walked beside them, could not protect them. For the same reason young Cecil Gaines’ father was afraid to protest the abuse of his wife. So what did my mother and her sisters do: they peeled off in different directions and outran their would-be rapists, who were often on horseback. I’m sure neither you nor I wish to think of this.
But I digress.
Forest Whitaker is beyond amazing as the butler who gets to see what American political leadership is made of. His dogged effort to be the best invisible presence in a world devoid of soul is fascinating to watch. His love of his wife and family, to whom all his labor is ultimately offered, is so tender it makes us long to dig up our own fathers and grandfathers who have passed over long ago, and give them hugs. His wife, Gloria, played to the hilt by Oprah Winfrey, is so real – even to her affair with a numbers runner who explains the workings of the Universe by spinning a couple of coat hangers – we forget we’re watching a face most people on the planet see every day.
Jane Fonda is powerful in her moment as Nancy Reagan: the compleat hypocrite. John Cusak is evilly loathsome as Ronald. Those were tough years, some of the toughest. Seeing their smiling faces every day as our children began to self-destruct under an avalanche of violence and drugs and our neighborhoods went up in flames. And Johnson: The scene on the toilet says it all. And Nixon, hand puppet of Kissinger and hater of the “little yellow bastards” in Vietnam that he still couldn’t beat, at last offering a seat to the only man left standing: the butler.
I will see The Butler again, to savor the flawless directing, and the acting: by Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Clarence Williams, III, David Oyelowo, Isaac White, Cuba Gooding, Lenny Kravitz, John Cusak, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Liev Schreiber and anyone else I may have left out. I would have appreciated a fuller interpretation of how the gentle Civil Rights activist – after being beaten badly enough to be hospitalized – became a militant member of the Black Panthers. Without this exploration of her experience she comes off as a sullen “bad girl” with way too big hair. I also experience a doomed feeling when I think of any black person, under the present system of government, so crooked in the present and so cocooned in the past, trusting a president, of whatever color, to do the right thing by us. And by “us” I mean all of us.
In fact, our audience groaned as Cecil Gaines made his way back inside the White House to meet a president he wouldn’t have to serve.
A couple of years ago I was part of a Freedom Flotilla that attempted to bring aid and expressions of caring to the blockaded people of Gaza. We were turned back by armed commandos of the Greek coast guard. An artist on our boat had made caps for us to wear that had the words STAY HUMAN printed on them. The ability of our parents and grandparents, our ancestors, to stay human in situations where it would have made more sense to go mad, strikes me often as miraculous. But yes, they stayed human. That is what the butler did.
Recommended second feature, from Netflixs: Bulworth, the 1998 film directed by Warren Beatty, starring Beatty (subversive and fun to watch) Halle Berry ( soulful and fantastic) and Don Cheadle (gorgeous and intense). With a beautiful appearance by poet Amiri Baraka who reminds us: “You got to be Spirit. Don’t be no ghost.” Timely advice in politics and elsewhere.