Film, Television, and Media Critiques Relevant to Bioethics
THE BUTLER: Awards vs Dignity
DirectorLee Daniels' The
Butleris an historical
fiction film. It is inspired by many men and women. It tells the story
of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his family. Cecil is a Black
man born in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow era. He becomes
a member of the White House staff, serving presidents Eisenhower through
Reagan. Though the media touts the films focus as dismantling
institutional racism, I read the film's main theme as even more universal.
The Butlerillustrates a
conflict between a man and his eldest son. The former began his life in
well-founded fear while the latter with a sense of the right and obligation to
struggle for dignity illustrating tensions between paternalism and autonomy.
It is as common in families as in the doctor-patient relationship. The
paternalism-autonomy issue is a good one to consider in terms of bioethics as
it is an issue of competing goods, not simply black and white, good or bad.
This is not only the story of a Black American family, but of many
families where one generation is born prior and the next after, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
The absence of any nominations forThe
Butler, from members of two major awards organizations, was an eyebrow
raising event driving me to consider if the films story, not its craft,
was the reason for its exclusion from nomination.The Butler is one of four
films with major theatrical releases in 2013 which tell stories of persons
primarily of African descent. As a groupThe
Butler, Twelve Years a Slave, Mandela: Long Walk to FreedomandFruitvale Stationhave transcended the narrow
distribution genre of "ethnic film." Some members of film
awards nominations committees may not have gotten 'the memo.' Of note,
the Weinstein Company distributed three out of the four films. There had
been hopes that the awards season would share the enthusiasm of these film's
broad audiences with unprecedented nominations; as happened in 2006 when we
were graced with:The Pursuit
of Happiness, Dream GirlsandThe Last King of Scotland.
Close, but no cigar forThe
Butler, leaving me to consider why.
Was it film craft?The Butler's director,
lead actors and cinematographer have been recognized previously by awards and
their work as an ensemble represents some of the best expression of cinema.
Visuals were classically and appropriately delivered by award winning
veteran cinematographer Andrew Dunn, (Gosford Park, LA Story, the Madness of
King George,) and film editor Joel Klotz (Precious). Several
of the sequences represent some of the strongest film imagery in history.
For instance, a montage of a White House supper party being prepared and
served by an all Black wait staff including Cecil, rapidly intercut with shots
of college students including Cecil's son Louis being, trained in passive
resistance, facing attacked while desegregating a lunch counter. A
second example, Cecil is present, standing ready to serve during a White house
concert of Cellist Pablo Casals. Through lighting, Cecil's transformed into the
image of a racist stereotype art form reminiscent of Jim Crow, Zip Coon or
Uncle Tom. Further, the score of Rodrigo Leao catapults many of the
films visuals into the range of legendary opera, reflecting the complex inner
emotions of the main characters.
Lead character portrayals include the Gaines family: Cecil (Forest
Whitaker), Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), Louis (David
Oyelowo), Charlie (Elijah Kelley) and Carter (Cuba Gooding
Jr.) These are compellingly real; as if they lived around the
corner in any working class Black community in the U.S.A. The men who
portrayed presidents Eisenhower,
Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan (Robin Williams, James Marsted, John Cusack, Alan
Rickman) were also exceptional. The wardrobe, makeup and set design
artist supporting the film represented a tour de force moving through
decades of style.
The Butler'slack of
awards recognition is clearly not because of film craft. The ensemble having
received past awards shouldn't matter either. We have examples of multiple
awards for more dubious activities recently. Only the story is left to
blame. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong created an
eminently emotionally accessible historical fiction which transforms degradation
into resilience, for the average person. It also depicts multidimensional
characters, several of whom are women. Clearly, the goal of this film is to
make people feel good about the struggle for human, civil and worker’s rights.
It's a Peace Genre Film, much like the filmLa Mission; a story of father
and son's conflict at the crossroads between the past and the future. Both
films ultimately choose the more progressive route. La Missionwas not nominated for Oscars or Golden
Globes either. Perhaps this was a case of bad luck being released in such a
competitive field. I suspect there is more of an apolitical or political
phenomenon a foot.
My most worrisome bioethical concern is that the story ofThe Butlercontradicts the vast expression of
negativity and degenerate nature reflected in many recent films despite the
race of the major characters. Rejection by film trend makers ofPeace Genre Films, particular
when war is being waged on so many fronts, can't be a good thing. The
pessimistic violent trend both reflects and fosters the pain of this period in
history. It is to Mr. Daniels credit that given the resources to do whatever he
chose, he chose to makeThe
Butleran homage to the
spirit which elevates humanity. The Butler is readily available on a variety of
digital media. People will and should continue to view it.
Lee Daniels' The Butlerdoesn't
deny inhuman levels of physical and emotional brutality, seen in many other
films this year and last; it simply denies these realities an ultimate
platform. Better to forego nominations for awards than to forego an opportunity
to foster dignity.
Lee Daniels' The Butler (35mm) directed by Lee Daniels. USA. The Weinstein
Additonal information about films referenced in this piece are accessible
For more information on Peace Genre Films see on this website:
5/23/2010 post: LA MISSION: Prototype for the Peace Genre
For more information on film literacy and bioethics on this website see link to:
Lighten Up - Dying on Screen: Film and Bioethics Literacy Slides