My Friends

Arrow Up

Arrow Up
Arrow Down
,
  • Tue
    16
  • Wed
    17
  • Thu
    18
  • Fri
    19
  • Sat
    20
  • Sun
    21
  • Mon
    22
Bijan Mostafavi Sep 16, 2014 The local jokester won the SD Comedy Contest in 2012 and the INDI.COM Stand Up Comedy Contest in 2013. He will be recording this night's show for an audio CD. 53 other events on Tuesday, September 16
 
Spin Cycle
And speaking of fights, who would win: Jason Roe or a great white shark?
Arts & Culture feature
Holding a brief candle to a locally made modern thriller
News
Climate plan, water conservation and bag ban are on the slow track
Check 1, Check 2 | Music & nightlife
Band plays live for first time in 20 years
Concerts
Bands coming to town and just-announced shows

 

 
Log in to use your Facebook account with
San Diego CityBeat

Login With Facebook Account

Recent Activity on San Diego CityBeat
 
Home / Articles / Arts / Film /  ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ recognizes the two faces of race
. . . .
Wednesday, Aug 14, 2013

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ recognizes the two faces of race

American history unfolds up close in this drama starring Forest Whitaker

By Glenn Heath Jr.
film1 Winfrey and Whitaker, witnesses to history

“The room should feel empty when you’re in it. You hear nothing; you see nothing.” White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) has lived by such a professional code ever since 1926, when, as a child, he was forced to become a house servant on a Georgia plantation. In the early moments of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Cecil’s first boss calls this public / private duality the “two faces,” something African-Americans are forced to master in order to survive in the white man’s world.

Throughout Lee Daniels’ The Butler, an expansive and elegant biopic based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen (who Cecil stands in for as a fictional representation), we see how professional servitude and emotional invisibility stand in stark contrast to a man’s personal life. It’s a theme of practiced deception that inevitably touches each character and transcends race, from the multiple iconic figures that make appearances to Cecil’s own family, including his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo).

Details accumulated by singular fly-on-the-wall experiences remain essential to the film’s outlook on American history. A few standouts include Cecil’s memory of Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly) refusing to take off her bloodstained pink dress after JFK’s assassination, and Richard Nixon (a perfect John Cusack) slithering into the pantry to recruit the black vote and steal a cookie. These intimate moments exist outside the classic definition of history as a linear record, residing on the fringes of one man’s memory, witnessed from up close and almost by accident.

This motif expands beyond Cecil’s gaze to include Louis’ progression from disaffected youth to civil-rights activist and eventual Black Panther member. Essentially a father-and-son story at heart, the film jumps between Cecil’s privileged view of Washington’s backdoor politics and his son’s tumultuous journey fighting for black rights in the South.

Daniels connects the two stories in brilliant ways, including a standout montage sequence that cuts between Cecil’s meticulous performance serving at a state dinner and Louis’ horrifying experience during a sit-in protest at a diner. Taken as a whole, this segment both exemplifies and subverts the “two faces” ideology in a burst of cinematic style.

Another essential overlap comes in a short scene where Dr. Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) explains to Louis how the role of the black domestic can seamlessly undermine racial hatred. Only here does he begin to recognize how his father’s place in history has made an impact, however small it may seem.

Where most biopic films attempt to lionize their subjects with simplistic sensationalism, Daniels favors restraint when dealing with the many chapters of Cecil’s life. Very little judgment exists, only the consideration of given moments from multiple competing perspectives. This is surprising considering the director’s track record, which includes the contrived melodrama Precious and the amazingly sleazy noir, The Paperboy.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (a title forced upon distributor The Weinstein Company after it lost an MPAA arbitration ruling filed by Warner Brothers) loses steam in the final act, depending wholeheartedly on clear-cut versions of redemption and defiance in anticipation of the Obama era. But, by then, Daniels has long since fortified his version as something substantial. Ultimately, it’s a film about visualizing one’s place in history, and then being reminded how terrifying that process can be.

Instead of ridiculing or denying the existence of Cecil’s struggle with the “two faces” mentality, the film—which opens widely around San Diego on Friday, Aug. 16—explores what it means to grapple with such an ideological force over the course of changing time periods and viewpoints. Thanks to Whitaker’s understated and powerful performance, this dilemma is given a human face. Daniels is courageous enough to present this issue on equal terms with the great events that defined America in the 20th century. That’s pretty radical. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com




 
 
 
 
 
 
Close
Close
Close