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01/23/2014

THE BUTLER: Awards vs Dignity

Director Lee Daniels’ The Butler is an historical fiction film. It is inspired by many men and women. It tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his family. Cecil is a Black man born in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow era. He becomes a member of the White House staff, serving presidents Eisenhower through Reagan.  Though the media touts the films focus as dismantling institutional racism, I read the film’s main theme as even more universal. 

The Butler illustrates a conflict between a man and his eldest son.  The former began his life in well-founded fear while the latter with a sense of the right and obligation to struggle for dignity illustrating tensions between paternalism and autonomy.  It is as common in families as in the doctor-patient relationship. The paternalism-autonomy issue is a good one to consider in terms of bioethics as it is an issue of competing goods, not simply black and white, good or bad. This is not only the story of a Black American family, but of many families where one generation is born prior and the next after, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The absence of any nominations for The Butler, from members of two major awards organizations, was an eyebrow raising event driving me to consider if the films story, not its craft, was the reason for its exclusion from nomination. The Butler is one of four films with major theatrical releases in 2013 which tell stories of persons primarily of African descent. As a group The Butler, Twelve Years a Slave, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Fruitvale Station have transcended the narrow distribution genre of “ethnic film.”  Some members of film awards nominations committees may not have gotten ‘the memo.’  Of note, the Weinstein Company distributed three out of the four films.  There had been hopes that the awards season would share the enthusiasm of these film’s broad audiences with unprecedented nominations; as happened in 2006 when we were graced with: The Pursuit of Happiness, Dream Girls and The Last King of Scotland.  Close, but no cigar for The Butler, leaving me to consider why. 

Was it film craft? The Butler‘s director, lead actors and cinematographer have been recognized previously by awards and their work as an ensemble represents some of the best expression of cinema. Visuals were classically and appropriately delivered by award winning veteran cinematographer Andrew Dunn, (Gosford Park, LA Story, the Madness of King George,) and film editor Joel Klotz (Precious).  Several of the sequences represent some of the strongest film imagery in history.  For instance, a montage of a White House supper party  being prepared and served by an all Black wait staff including Cecil, rapidly intercut with shots of college students including Cecil’s son Louis being, trained in passive resistance,  facing attacked while desegregating a lunch counter.  A second example, Cecil is present, standing ready to serve during a White house concert of Cellist Pablo Casals. Through lighting, Cecil’s transformed into the image of a racist stereotype art form reminiscent of Jim Crow, Zip Coon or Uncle Tom.  Further, the score of Rodrigo Leao catapults many of the films visuals into the range of legendary opera, reflecting the complex inner emotions of the main characters.   

Lead character portrayals include the Gaines family: Cecil (Forest Whitaker), Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Louis (David Oyelowo), Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.)   These are compellingly real; as if they lived around the corner in any working class Black community in the U.S.A.  The men who portrayed presidents  Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan (Robin Williams, James Marsted, John Cusack, Alan Rickman) were also exceptional.  The wardrobe, makeup and set design artist supporting the film represented a tour de force moving through decades of style.  

The Butler’s lack of awards recognition is clearly not because of film craft. The ensemble having received past awards shouldn’t matter either. We have examples of multiple awards for more dubious activities recently.  Only the story is left to blame.  Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong created an eminently emotionally accessible historical fiction which transforms degradation into resilience, for the average person. It also depicts multidimensional characters, several of whom are women. Clearly, the goal of this film is to make people feel good about the struggle for human, civil and worker’s rights. It’s a Peace Genre Film, much like the film La Mission; a story of father and son’s conflict at the crossroads between the past and the future. Both films ultimately choose the more progressive route.  La Mission was not nominated for Oscars or Golden Globes either. Perhaps this was a case of bad luck being released in such a competitive field. I suspect there is more of an apolitical or political phenomenon a foot. 

My most worrisome bioethical concern is that the story of The Butler contradicts the vast expression of negativity and degenerate nature reflected in many recent films despite the race of the major characters. Rejection by film trend makers of Peace Genre Films, particular when war is being waged on so many fronts, can’t be a good thing. The pessimistic violent trend both reflects and fosters the pain of this period in history. It is to Mr. Daniels credit that given the resources to do whatever he chose, he chose to make The Butler an homage to the spirit which elevates humanity. The Butler is readily available on a variety of digital media. People will and should continue to view it.  

Lee Daniels’ The Butler doesn’t deny inhuman levels of physical and emotional brutality, seen in many other films this year and last; it simply denies these realities an ultimate platform. Better to forego nominations for awards than to forego an opportunity to foster dignity. 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (35mm) directed by Lee Daniels. USA. The Weinstein Company. 2013.

Additonal information about films referenced in this  piece are accessible online. 

For more information on Peace Genre Films see on this website: 5/23/2010 post: LA MISSION: Prototype for the Peace Genre

For more information on film literacy and bioethics on this website see link to:  Lighten Up – Dying on Screen: Film and Bioethics Literacy Slides

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