Tackling the Uncle Tom theme is always likely to court controversy whether it depicts a cynical act of survival at one pole, a deluded hope for change at the other or a general fear somewhere between these extremes.
Samuel L Jackson’s sadistic housekeeper in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ caused an outcry within the black community for its portrayal of a black man, who would stop at nothing to repress his own people during America’s pre-Civil War slave trade. It formed part of a blistering attack on the white slaveowners but there was a sense, perhaps, that Tarantino was fighting somebody else’s war on his own terms.
Lee Daniels addresses a different kind of suppression in his third feature – technically known as ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ following the high profile legal wrangling over the film’s title – and returns us to the factious post war period with the civil rights movement fighting the latest manifestation of Southern fascism – segregation – and its ugly aftermath. We see both peaceful and violent protesters – a distinction that the police fail to recognise – from the perspective of the title character, who adopts a third way, one that unwittingly embraces some Uncle Tom characteristics albeit with the best intentions. This is dangerous territory for Daniels where any ambiguity as to what’s what would the run the risk of pissing off the black community far more than Tarantino.
Daniels very loosely based the film on Eugene Allen, a black butler who spent an extraordinary 34 years serving eight presidents at the White House. It could have provided a bird’s eye view of the inside track from the outside – an intriguing sideways look at the period – but Daniels was more concerned with a wider sweep, which strangely reduces the presidents to caricatures with a grotesque Lyndon Baines Johnson holding court on the loo (whilst his attendants do their utmost to look the other way) and John Cusack lending Richard Nixon the same deranged air as his swamp man, Van Wetter, in Daniels’s last feature, ‘The Paperboy’.
In the fictionalised version, the butler has a different name, Cecil Gaines; a new backstory where a psycho white cotton farmer rapes his mother and shoots his father dead at point blank range but remains beyond the law in a throwback to the slave trade in a very familiar sort of way; and a changed private life with a discontented wife bemoaning her husband’s absence at work – think, the proverbial cop’s other half – and a radicalised son, who rejects the Black Panthers’ violence and, somewhat incredulously, becomes part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle.
It sets up a potentially tired binary opposite between an ‘old school’ family patriarch and his subversive son, but Daniels does, to a certain extent, mitigate against the contrived plotting and defy our expectations. Somewhere between Gaines’ self-defeating faith in achieving change through reliable subservience – one that requires him to become as invisible as possible, the ultimate non-person – and an extraordinary dignity when faced with careless provocation as a matter of routine – a subtle but very evident defiance emerges that the fictional MLK recognises. Presumably, when this MLK declares that the “black domestic defies racial stereotypes by being hardworking and trustworthy”, he is expressing Daniels’ view. Not everybody will feel comfortable with this slant but the film does make a point very effectively that, at ground level, things are not always quite what they first seem and there can be an enormous gap between facing reality and political slogans.
This is a better film than it sounds; aided by a decent script and superb nuanced performances from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines and his wife.