Lessons from The Butler.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I received an offer during the week to go see a movie at the cinemas, and for lack of any better movie showing at the time, I decided to see Lee Daniels' "The Butler".

My disinclination to the movie was due to my recently becoming bored of the genre of 'blaxploitation' movies, which never seem to tire of re-enacting the cliché of slavery, apartheid and other horrors inflicted in the past on coloured people. 

Don't get me wrong, I feel deep sadness just imagining the harrowing experiences of uncles and cousins, being kidnapped from home and transported across the great Atlantic to what is now the United States of America. I may not fully understand what the immediate victims or their immediate families must have experienced; I literally 'live' the trauma whenever reading or watching or (hearing stories from my dad) regarding all these. However, it seems to me that Hollywood has found a way to harness the pain for commercial success, in stereotypically re-hashing the gory memories, while twisting the knife in the wounds of years gone by.

So, it was with this mind-set that I went to see 'the Butler'. And within the first 10 minutes of the movie, I already felt justified in my prejudice against the movie. 

The movie (unsurprisingly) opened to the (expected) sexual abuse of a coloured field servant, while her son witnessed both the abuse, and the accompanying murder of her husband/his father. The fact that the 'abused' was in reality Mariah Carey did not ease my disgust, as the feeling of dejavu washed through me, and I remembered similar scenes in 'Roots', 'Crash' and most recently, 'Django' (ugghh!). I began contemplating how to get out of the cinema hall, while causing the least distraction.

As I sat there trying to figure out my next line of action however, the movie grew on me. Rather than adopting the usual tactic of pseudo-fictional characters, with sadistic horrors inflicted on them, the movie assumed the nature of a narrative; infusing certain facts and historical narratives into the storyline, which made the plot more plausible. The movie did not just stop at highlighting man's infliction of wickedness on fellow man, but gave a slight background on the cause of this, and carried the audience from the era of racial segregation, through the civil liberties movement, and to the eventual status of racial equality; at least, on paper. The movie tells the same story, but from so many sides, thereby giving the audience to ability to be less sentimental and be more objective, while slowly buying the ideas being sold. In less than three hours, it seemed to me like I had just witnessed the whole struggle for equality, spanning about seven decades.

But a significant feature of the movie its ability to also show the 'not-so-clean' side of the struggle for equality, and the degeneration of this 'struggle' (in some instances) into violence. I honestly applaud the movie for discussing (albeit briefly) this side, which most other similar movies fail to depict, and would usually leave the audience with incomplete accounts of the struggle. (It is only with extensive reading and research that one is able to fully grasp the 'incompleteness' of the movie accounts).

The Butler is a breath of fresh air, compared to most other movie accounts of the struggle for race equality in the United States. The movie succeeds in beautifully carrying the audience through several phases of the struggle, to the eventual ascension of the American throne by an African-American, and not through violent power, but with the greatest power ever: Knowledge. The movie is able to communicate the message that violence does not necessarily lead to success. Rather, knowledge is the key to victory. Case in point, if President Obama had never acquired education, he would have never been considered for the position of the President, little less ascending to it.

Similarly, the movie sweetly depicts the perseverance of the victims of blatant racial discrimination, and won my respect for not making trivial or merely melodramatic the seriousness of the perilous times in which the victims lived in. The tone of the movie is serious, but compelling and indeed touching.

The presence of its all-star cast did not in any way demean its message (in the usual 'Hollywood-style' of all-star movies) and no 'star' is seen trying to 'outshine' the other. The stars justified their constellation in the movie, and each did justice to her/his role, without being kept in the movie longer than necessary. Each bowed at the appropriate time, some staying till the end. Forrest Whitaker (as usual) was breathtakingly amazing (big ups to sister Oprah too). It was good 'ole acting, through and through. And the beautiful background musical score was apt in accompanying the amazing performances of the cast. 

Above all, the movie is absolutely clean, and I would totally take my teenage daughter to watch it with me, and learn from it. Share your reviews on the movie as well, if you've watched it. 



 Disclaimer: The pictures used do not belong to me, but are taken from Google.

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  1. Meg, u've got a teenage daughter? Wow, u don't say! #tongueincheek. Well, thanx for de indepth review of de movie. So, lookin forward to watchin it...

    1. Haha! I wish, but hopefully...soon enough. Yea, its a really nice movie. I totally enjoyed it.