FREEDOM on film

En­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try fi­nally em­brac­ing the U. S. civil- rights move­ment

SundayXtra - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ann Hornaday ‘ If ( The But­ler) opens the doors for other civil- rights films and African- Amer­i­can dra­mas, right on. That’s a great thing. Any­thing to help the cause’

OVER the past sev­eral decades, im­por­tant fea­ture films have been made about most of the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural touch­stones of post- Sec­ond World War Amer­ica, from the Viet­nam War and John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion to Water­gate and women’s lib­er­a­tion. But there’s been one glar­ing ex­cep­tion: The breadth and depth of the civil- rights move­ment — the most in­flu­en­tial so­cial and po­lit­i­cal force of the 20th cen­tury, not just on Amer­i­can life but through­out the world — has never been rep­re­sented in the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive medium of our age. Un­til now. A num­ber of films about the civil- rights move­ment are in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment. The first out of the gate will be Lee Daniels’ The But­ler, which stars For­est Whitaker as Ce­cil Gaines, an African- Amer­i­can man born a share­crop­per’s son in Ge­or­gia, who comes to Wash­ing­ton in the 1950s and even­tu­ally serves eight U. S. pres­i­dents as a White House but­ler. ( The film is based on a Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle writ­ten by Wil Hay­good in 2008.)

Di­rected by Daniels and fea­tur­ing a cav­al­cade of stars in cameo roles, The But­ler largely fo­cuses on Gaines’s fam­ily life and in­ter­ac­tions with the pres­i­den­tial fam­i­lies he serves. But it also chron­i­cles the bur­geon­ing move­ment tak­ing shape on the streets far be­yond 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave.

While Gaines silently ob­serves Dwight D. Eisen­hower grap­pling with school de­seg­re­ga­tion, Lyn­don B. John­son pre­par­ing to sign the 1965 vot­ing rights act and Richard M. Nixon plot­ting against the Black Pan­thers, his son Louis ( David Oyelowo) is sit­ting in at a Nashville, Tenn. lunch counter, join­ing the Freedom Rid­ers, cross­ing paths with Martin Luther King Jr. and even­tu­ally join­ing the Pan­thers him­self.

Sim­i­lar scenes have been por­trayed as back­drops or per­func­tory mon­tages in pre­vi­ous films. But The But­ler, which ar­rived in theatres Fri­day, is the first ma­jor fea­ture film to cap­ture the full sweep and scope of the civil- rights move­ment, in­clud­ing its global re­ver­ber­a­tions. ( Gaines re­tires dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ron­ald Rea­gan, who is seen ve­to­ing sanc­tions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.) For that rea­son, if The But­ler does well at the box of­fice, projects about the same era that have been stalled over the past sev­eral years may find re­newed mo­men­tum. Con­versely, should the film flop, some of Hol­ly­wood’s most per­ni­cious myths — most point­edly that there are not wide au­di­ences for his­tor­i­cal dra­mas in gen­eral and black films in par­tic­u­lar — will be­come all the more en­trenched.

“Yikes,” said Daniels, who vis­ited Wash­ing­ton last week, when he con­sid­ered The But­ler as a cin­e­matic and cul­tural bell­wether. Upon re­flec­tion, how­ever, it’s a bur­den he was happy to ac­cept. “If it opens the doors for other civil­rights films and African- Amer­i­can dra­mas, right on,” he said. “That’s a great thing. Any­thing to help the cause.”

At least four ma­jor film or tele­vi­sion projects about the civil- rights move­ment are in the works: DreamWorks is de­vel­op­ing an un­ti­tled Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Mem­phis, about King’s fi­nal days and the hunt for his as­sas­sin, is back on track with di­rec­tor Paul Green­grass and pro­ducer Scott Rudin af­ter be­ing dropped by Univer­sal Pic­tures in 2011. Di­rec­tor Ava Du­Ver­nay is pre­par­ing to di­rect Selma, about the 1965 vot­ing- rights cam­paign ( a film Daniels him­self once in­tended to di­rect). And Amer­ica: In the King Years, based on Tay­lor Branch’s tril­ogy of civil- rights books, in­clud­ing the Pulitzer Prize- win­ning Part­ing the Wa­ters, is in de­vel­op­ment as a seven- part mini- se­ries at HBO.

Each of th­ese projects has been ges­tat­ing over sev­eral years, and each of them has been stymied or de­railed at some point, some­times be­cause of dis­putes over King’s life rights, some­times be­cause fi­nanc­ing fell apart, some­times be­cause a film­maker got cold feet. But all of them have been sub­ject to the tyranny of “com­pa­ra­bles” in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness, whereby ex­ec­u­tives green- light or drop movies based on the per­for­mance of projects with sim­i­lar themes and cast­ing con­fig­u­ra­tions.

— Lee Daniels

“In any busi­ness, part of the job is to mit­i­gate your risk,” Ed­ward Saxon told me in 2007. Saxon, an in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer, worked with Jonathan Demme 20 years ago when Demme sought to adapt Part­ing the Wa­ters as a fea­ture film. “So you say, ‘ OK, if this su­per­hero movie does even half of what that su­per­hero movie did, it’ll be suc­cess­ful.’ But when you tried to call up com­pa­ra­bles on a movie like Part­ing the Wa­ters, they ( didn’t) ex­ist.”

That math might be chang­ing. Con­sider: In 2009, Daniels’ drama Pre­cious, based on the novel Push by Sap­phire be­came an un­ex­pected art- house hit, and earned Daniels an Os­car nom­i­na­tion. Last year, Lin­coln Steven Spiel­berg’s his­tor­i­cal drama about the 16th U. S. pres­i­dent, ex­ceeded even Spiel­berg’s com­mer­cial ex­pec­ta­tions. This year, the Jackie Robin­son biopic 42 and the mi­cro- bud­get con­tem­po­rary drama Fruit­vale Sta­tion have both done well at the box of­fice, earn­ing more than $ 95 mil­lion and $ 10 mil­lion, re­spec­tively.

And it’s no co­in­ci­dence The But­ler is open­ing the same month as did The Help, the pe­riod drama about African- Amer­i­can do­mes­tic work­ers and their white em­ploy­ers that be­came a box- of­fice smash in 2011 — and that shares more than a lit­tle the­matic DNA with The But­ler.

Know­ing the im­por­tance of com­pa­ra­bles, The But­ler screen­writer Danny Strong crossed his fin­gers when The Help came out, watch­ing its com­mer­cial jour­ney closely. “I was writ­ing The But­ler si­mul­ta­ne­ously and I was very wor­ried: Could this hurt get­ting The But­ler made?” Strong re­called last week. On the strength of the $ 180- mil­lion The Help earned at the box of­fice, he added, “we were able to go to pri­vate fi­nanciers and say, ‘ Look at what a hit this was.’ It was enor­mously help­ful in giv­ing peo­ple con­fi­dence that we could quote un­quote be the next Help. And if we can make half as much as The Help did, we’re a hit.”

Whether it’s a func­tion of com­pa­ra­bles, cul­tural progress, changes in the global film busi­ness or the Obama ef­fect, the zeit­geist seems to be shift­ing. The re­sult is that one of the most vi­brant, mean­ing­ful, po­tent and richly dra­matic eras in Amer­i­can his­tory may fi­nally find the cin­e­matic foothold it has been de­nied for far too long. As Daniels told me when I asked how The But­ler got made in spite of the ob­sta­cles: “You can’t stop the uni­verse from do­ing what is meant to hap­pen.”

— The Wash­ing­ton Post


This film im­age re­leased by The We­in­stein Com­pany shows Oprah Win­frey as Glo­ria Gaines and For­est Whitaker as Ce­cil Gaines in a scene from Lee Daniels’ The But­ler.


David Oyelowo in a scene from Lee Daniels’ The But­ler.

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