I know that you shouldn’t judge a movie by its trailer, but God, I hate the trailer for The Butler. It wraps all of the problematic bits about Hollywood’s approach to race and history in a single horrifying package. The Butler is the new film from Lee Daniels (director of Shadowboxer, Precious and last year’s Paperboy), adapted from a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, a man who served as a butler for eight American Presidents. You should read Haygood’s article, it’s a pretty fun human interest piece. I would love to watch a movie about Allen’s life, especially one that featured Forest Whitaker, David Oyewolo and even Oprah Winfrey (she’s always been pretty good when she puts her mind to it). After watching the trailer, I suspect that I will be disappointed. The trailer for the Butler is aggressively bland. it suggests that the film will be a ‘prestige’, award grubbing film that will remind me of all of the problems with the way major studio films approach race, history and family.
The most significant problem is that the narrative suggested by the trailer is incredibly dull. I’d be interested in the story of a man who overcomes a childhood in the Jim Crow South to become a butler to Presidents that focused on his journey and struggles. But there are too many moments in this trailer when someone is talking to (or for) Whitaker or he’s smiling beatifically. We don’t hear enough of his voice or perspective. The parade of amusingly miscast Presidents is fine, but I care less about his marginal impact on their views on race than about how he maintained a healthy relationship with his wife despite the demanding hours of his profession or how his experience as a sharecropper informed his parenting. I hope that we’ll see more of the latter, but the trailer doesn’t look too promising.
The trailer’s banal depiction of the relationship between father and son would have been tolerable if the son’s evolution from Freedom Rider to Black Panther and the generational conflict that results from that transformation wasn’t so disappointing. I have no doubt that real people have had the experience depicted in the film, but I’d be far more interested in a narrative that embraced the complexity and fascinating paradoxes of the movement and that didn’t characterize the distinctions between the two arms of the civil rights movement as a generation gap. There were plenty of older folk (including veterans of the civil rights movement) that sympathized with (or embraced) the radicals. Similarly, there were plenty of Panthers (and members of other ‘radical’ groups) that had no experience in the movement, and were simply radicalized by being a black person in mid-century. The trailer suggests that the Butler will embrace the traditional Hollywood approach to Civil Rights that embraces the standard consensus we all learn in middle school and ignores the diversity within the movement and the community. Instead of showing us something new, it’s a highlight reel of all the things that mainstream America remembers re: the African American community. It’s a wasted opportunity.
The same could be said of the trailer’s depiction of Presidents from the second half of the twentieth century. These were the first Presidents of the television era, and it would be fun to see a look at the way that their behavior reinforces and/or confounds conventional wisdom. The trailer shows us glimpses of every President from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Nixon (John Cusack) (with a quick appearance by Reagan (Alan Rickman)) with an emphasis on Kennedy (James Marsden).
I wanted the trailer to show us a more nuanced Kennedy than we were accustomed to seeing in popular culture – a man struggling with his appetites, legacy and mixed feelings about civil rights and the Cold War. Maybe we’ll see that in the film, but the bits in the trailer don’t look very promising (that whole ‘you helped me understand black people’ bit was cringeworthy). The segments with the other Presidents felt like excerpts from SNL skits (the hilarious casting choices don’t help – seriously, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower?).
This trailer reminds me of all of the films about black life and culture that never see the big screen. I want more stories about notable figures, entrepreneurs and leaders of color. There aren’t enough films about the African American community that are set after the 1960’s that aren’t about drugs or violence.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the trailer fails to capture the nuance of the film. It’s just so bad that I can’t imagine setting aside the time (or spending the money) to give it a chance.