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‘The Butler,’ ‘In a world…,’ and Why Cultural Politics Matters

'The Butler,' 'In a world...,' and Cultural Politics

Though the reviews for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (or Lee Daniels’ The Butler, if you’ve recently lost an arbitration dispute with Warner Bros.) are more positive than the notices for his roundly shellacked The Paperboy, there’s a similarly hedging quality to many of them. At the A.V. Club, Ben Kenigsberg calls it “a straightforward soap opera — sentimental, reductive, and, in spite of itself, satisfying.” At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir writes that it’s “programmatic, didactic and shamelessly melodramatic,” before going on to call it “indisputably an important film and a necessary one.” At the DissolveNathan Rabin less charitably says it “sometimes suggests the world’s longest, most sentimental Saturday Night Live sketch,” while the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten calls it “a lovely portrait of a marriage over time, and though it is packed with melodrama, it has none of the baroque flourishes that color so many of Daniels’ films.”

Daniels’ chronicle of five decades in the life of White House manservant Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) is focused on the male-dominated halls of power, and only a few of its scant female characters appear in more than a single scene: Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife (and one of the movie’s 41 producers); Yaya Alafia as, for a time, the stridently political girlfriend of Cecil’s elder son, David Oyelowo; perhaps Minka Kelly’s Jackie Kennedy or Jane Fonda’s Nancy Reagan. And yet the terms that creep into The Butler‘s reviews suggest it’s being framed as a “woman’s picture,” perhaps because of Winfrey’s involvement, perhaps because in playing the handmaiden to a succession of great men, Whitaker is assuming a a role that, in fiction, is usually held by a woman.

Although some posters for The Butler show Cecil with his head bowed and his fist raised in a black power salute, the movie positions him as a different kind of political agent, one who changes history not through activism but by the simple fact of his existence. He strenuously avoids giving his opinions, even when, in a scene lifted from The Remains of the Day, he’s uncomfortably put on the spot. But his presence in the White House helps sway J.F.K. to support the growing civil rights movement, and no less an authority than Martin Luther King tells Oyelowo, who’s always been embarrassed by his father’s job, that black domestic workers have played an important role in the struggle, proving, counter to racist stereotype, that African-Americans can be industrious and trustworthy. (The actors Daniels uses in the role of commander in chief — James Marsden as JFK, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan — can seem odd, even perverse choices, but his idiosyncratic casting ensures that, despite his lowly status, Cecil always has more gravitas than anyone in the room.)

In 2013, that seems like a piddling victory, and Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are careful to balance Cecil’s quiet endurance with scenes of Oyelowo challenging Southern segregation, and to make a running theme of Cecil asking for the White House’s black staff to be paid the same as its white workers. But by and large, the movie puts its faith in cultural politics. It’s no accident that a central scene features Cecil and his wife dancing to Soul Train, a show that put a harmless, life-affirming form of black culture into tens of millions of white living rooms. Soul Train wasn’t angry, and it didn’t ask for anything: It said, “We’re having a party, and you’re missing it.” In a sense, it made the underlying argument that integration was better than segregation because it was more fun. Behind the scenes, of course, producer Don Cornelius fought many battles, but they never made it onto the dance floor.

Changing attitudes over time is less dramatic than staring down a bigot, but the effect can be profound and lasting. In the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, singer Merry Clayton, who is black, recalls being asked to sing backup on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” She balked at the idea of contributing to a song that praised a state still steeped in old-school racism, but her older husband encouraged her to take the gig, so every time people heard the song, they’d hear her voice as well, bringing the sounds of the Southern black church further into the mainstream.

Like The Butler, Lake Bell’s In a world… works in a genre that critics tend to sleight: the romantic comedy. But Bell’s writing and directing debut is canny about mixing serious concerns in with its (generally delightful) repartee. Bell’s character is a struggling voiceover artist whose goal is to break into the male-dominated world of movie trailers, as famously embodied by the late, legendary Don Fontaine, whose booming catchphrase gives the movie its title. At first, she books  low-prestige, low-paying gigs for children’s movies and (of course) rom-coms, but eventually she’s in the running for a plum part: the trailer for The Amazon Games, the first film in a four-part series about a society ruled by female warriors. (Watch your back, Katniss Everdeen.)

In coming up with a female-centric sequel to “In a world…,” Bell’s character is effectively auditioning for the Voice of God. But the movie also questions whether replacing a stentorian bass with a stentorian alto would make any kind of difference. That goes, of course, for The Amazon Games themselves, which as depicted in the film amount to a gender-swapped version of Hollywood junk. Without looking down her nose at, say, the idea of a female-driven superhero movie, it’s clear Bell prefers another path.

In a world… takes that path, as as a result it’s been damned in some corners with faint praise, characterized as sweet but sleight As A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times review, “Like its heroine, a kind and quick-witted 30-year-old woman who often comes across as a self-involved underachiever, the movie can fool you with its unassuming visual style and rambling narrative.” It’s a serious movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. Bell’s character’s ongoing crusade against vocal fry, what she calls the “sexy baby voice,” is an attack on a culture where women infantilize themselves in order to seem less threatening, phrasing every sentence as a question lest a definitive statement frighten a potential mate or offend a male superior. Bell wants women to speak in their own voices, but maybe not that one.

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