I haven’t been to the movies in a while, so I was more than happy to get back to the theater with my friends Mary and Cory this weekend. These gals are lovely movie buddies, and they tend to be the people I see the most movies with here in Vegas. Problem is, I tend to hate just about everything we have seen together.
While they oohed and aahed at “The Great Gatsby”, I rolled my eyes. When they sang along with joy to “Les Mis”, I heaved and sighed. It has become a bit of a running joke that I only accompany them to the movies to mock the flicks they enjoy.
So, it was quite the surprise to all of us when, of all movies, I found myself enjoying “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” more than one would expect. I, for one, came into the film with low hopes. As much as I enjoy the work of screenwriter Danny Strong (Buffy Troika forever!), the reviews on this film seemed tepid at best. Moreover, I was not sure how I felt about the contrived, Forrest Gump-esque notion of telling the story of civil rights in America through a White House butler, even if it was based on a true story.
Here is where I am going to be perfectly honest: I got almost nothing out of the seemingly sincere history lesson this movie offers up. What I did get out of it was the joy I get out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, rife with pure camp and a flare for the overdramatic.
Wesley Morris over at Grantland confirmed I wasn’t the only one who conflated The Butler and Leave Her to Heaven. What Morris doesn’t address though is how much the director, the titular Lee Daniels, is invoking this sense of camp intentionally. When Douglas Sirk first hit the scene in the 50s, his movies were generally panned as fluff, but years later, people now consider his work rather subversive. Scholars believe Sirk is an auteur, purposefully invoking this sense of camp to make points about gender roles and societal expectations.
There is a whole lot of earnestness to “The Butler” that, the more I mull over it, the more I tend to believe Daniels believes he is making high art, not a low cult classic. Things like the dramatic juxtaposition between the lunch counter and the inaugural dinner aim high on the “arty” scale, that I think the director might just believe he is making one of the most important race movies in history.
But there are still these moments in the movie that have me wondering if he is in on the joke. The introduction of each hilariously-cast President seem designed to elicit a reaction, if not laughter. Then there are moments like when the butlet’s son returns home and is the most stereotypical Black Panther you can imagine. Cut to his girlfriend (who, btw, is Yaya from S3 of ANTM. Yes, that Yaya who got all snotty with Tyra about the cheap kente cloth then lost the Cover Girl challenge basically because she had bad skin) who has the most INSANE Afro the cinematic world has ever seen and I can’t help but believe this stuff is meant to be intentional.
To be honest, I hope Daniels is aiming for this sense of Sirkian camp on purpose. As the character Dr Martin Luther King (oh you know he made an appearance in this movie) points out, the Black servant in American culture is a subversive character. They defy expectations and challenge the status quo in a way that is more subtle and often more effective than more direct efforts for equality.
“The Butler”, much like the butlers, achieves the same sort of thing. Camp is a subversive style, and the campiness of this films challenges some of the expectations that tend to come with “important dramas” designed as awards bait. In actuality, this movie is a bit of a bait and switch. You come expecting a history lesson and a sanitized race movie like “The Help.” Instead, you get a melodrama that never ceases to surprise you, prompting you to question your expectations.
Like I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Daniels’ intent all along. I certainly hope it is, because otherwise it becomes a movie I am laughing at, not a movie I am learning from.