THE BUTLER

August 25, 2013

Quentin Tarantino opined that Django Unchained was supposed to jumpstart a meaningful discussion of race in America.  I never bought that line of reasoning and found the film – while accomplished on some levels – naïve or willfully ignorant about social context, emotional depth, and ideological cohesion.

Being a white, Southern woman is not a factor in my thinking about this.  I felt (and feel) exactly the same way about Inglorious Basterds.  This is a Jewish revenge story?  Maybe some people feel this way about it, but I have yet to read or hear an informed, coherent, and compelling analysis of the film from this perspective that makes a persuasive case.

The cause is not lost, however.  There is a new film that could be useful in expanding a meaningful dialogue on race.

On the surface, Lee Daniels’ film The Butler seems visually bold with a celebration of spectacle – though less indulgent, perhaps, than Tarantino – but his rich and frequently disturbing displays are juxtaposed with accomplished nuance and evocative quiet moments that offer a detailed exploration of African American experience that is lived in two worlds:  white (public) and black (private).

Great performances abound (not the white actors playing key political figures, though Jane Fonda’s Nancy Reagan is an exception), but Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, and Elijah Kelley (in a small but indelible role) are standouts as a father, mother, and two son who come from very different physical and emotional places to form a family.

Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines is a remarkable performance.  Gaines grows up on a farm in the Jim Crow South and watches a white man murder his father in the cotton field with impunity after raping his mother.  The boy becomes a house worker and leaves as soon as he is old enough, eventually working in a hotel.

His skill at being invisible in a room and anticipating the wants and needs of white people earn him an opportunity to work at a hotel in Washington, D.C. and, eventually, the chance to work at the White House where he serves a number of presidents and has a privileged view, of sorts, on key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The film, which is based on an article about an actual White House butler, takes literary license to expand its historic scope by giving one of the butler’s sons (Oyelowo) something of a composite role at various milestones in the Civil Rights Movement and, later, the emerging Black Power Movement.

While this is a bit risky, Daniels pulls it off in The Butler by making the film a more expansive look at how what worked for Gaines as a strategy for surviving then for getting by and making a better life for his sons does not work for his son, who wants more.   These are the big moments in the film, but that is only half the narrative.

The other half is just as compelling.

Cecil Gaines’ quiet dignity at work is always contrasted with his sense of humor in unguarded moments with his friends and family.  Over time, he evolves.  Eventually, he seeks higher wages for the black White House Employees who are paid less than whites.  And, finally, he learns to merge his public and private selves when it makes sense – on his terms – for him to do so.

This is the story of a personal journey with much larger meaning; it is a narrative that focuses on black experience without telling the story through a white prism or even using white characters as a major framing device.

If you believe that the only way to overcome racism is for whites to divest themselves of the trappings of white privilege, then the first step is convincing whites that such privilege exists.  Having this film in theaters at the same time as the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is fitting.

Films like The Butler can be important tools for that dawning awareness, but this movie is not overly didactic or polemical.  It’s based on a great story, and The Butler is a fine film.

The Butler (2013) Forest Whitaker (Screengrab)

 


RELIABLE SOURCES — The Diversity March Continues

August 25, 2013

As you know, I’ve been clamoring for more diversity among the hosts taking a turn on Reliable Sources, the weekly CNN show critiquing the media.  Last week the first woman host took a turn, and today the first person of color gets a shot.

I like Eric Deggans (formerly of Tampa Bay Times and soon-to-be TV critic for NPR), whom I’ve seen often as a panelist on the show when Howard Kurtz was the permanent host.  Easily, Deggans is one of the smoothest hosts tested so far, and he brings us one of the more interesting shows among those featuring rotating hosts.

Quibble?  Yes.

Having the first African American host on the show on this particular Sunday, one when the anniversary of the March on Washington takes center stage, and including analysis of the historic coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, examination of contemporary coverage of race in America, and a discussion of the film The Butler is a little like designating February Black History Month and March Women’s History March.

See what I mean?

Still, Eric Deggans is definitely a contender.  Wouldn’t mind seeing more of him, including weeks where the biggest media stories of the day are not situated around a landmark in the Civil Rights Movement.

He just might be my favorite guest host so far…

Eric Deggans

 


Summer of the Big Dud

August 23, 2013

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Timothy Egan, but there have been some fine, smaller pictures and a number of good docs out to compensate.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/22/summer-of-the-big-dud/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130823

And, let’s not forget, some good series like Orange is the New Black.  I can always find a few great things to watch, but never as much as I would like.  As for the big ones, they certainly have landed with a critical thud for discerning viewers.


BREAKING BAD Countdown

August 19, 2013

Getting really excited to see how the series is going to conclude.  Will it go out with a bang?


RELIABLE SOURCES Tests a Woman as Host

August 18, 2013

Unfortunately, I don’t think she ever said her name or was identified in a lower-third, so I had to go online to identify Joanne Lipman, former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.   About mid-way through the show, she did provide a twitter address for chatting after the show.

Despite the fact that she smiles too much (even, unfortunately, when discussing carnage in Egypt), she’s worth another look because she’s smart, seasoned, and has broad experience in media.  Practice, given the opportunity, should help the performative aspects of the job.

I would also like another look at Brian Stelter and and David Folkenflik.  What I wouldn’t give to be in the room when discussions about who will get the permanent gig take place.  As long as someone smart and substantive is selected, I’m ready to settle down with a permanent host but wouldn’t mind a few more candidates representing diverse constituencies first.

Joanne Lipman

 


BLUE JASMINE

August 18, 2013

You know how I feel about Woody Allen’s films when they are top drawer; it’s hard to beat Annie Hall and a handful of others.

I’ve never been terribly keen on his forays into the metaphysical (except for Zelig), his nostalgia movies, or the thin rehashes of the Mighty Aphrodite ilk.  I gave up on the older intellectual man and hot young thing who loves his tutelage storyline after Manhattan.

Allen gets credit for continuing to produce at a steady pace and for continuing to experiment with the form from time-to-time.  But, many of the recent films have been disappointments.

Even Midnight in Paris seemed like a one-trick-narrative-pony, though I was gratified to get all of the references and have a contextual understanding of the characters.

Blue Jasmine isn’t so much an experiment as it is a breathtaking vehicle (yes, the pun is noted) for Cate Blanchett to out-Blanche nearly every Blanche DuBois I recall seeing.  Not that I’ve seen that many of them.  And, Vivian Leigh was pretty good, too.

I generally like Allen’s homage pictures, if you want to call them that.  Blue Jasmine is his take on A Streetcar Named Desire, Interiors recalls Ingmar Bergman, and Stardust Memories evokes 8 ½.

This film is more cohesive than most of Allen’s other recent films, the pacing is good, and Blue Jasmine is engaging to watch.  I would not classify it as top drawer – except for Cate Blanchett’s performance – but it’s definitely worth watching.

Blue Jasmine


I Miss My Showtime…

August 17, 2013

…just think, if a deal had been reached with Time Warner, I could be catching up on Ray Donovan right now…when there is nothing else on the DVR or available On Demand that I particularly want to watch…