Sunday, August 18, 2013

THE BUTLER, the Press, My Pilot

Lord, Forest Whitaker sure has come a long way since scowling in Amy Heckerling's teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High!  That 1982 hit featured three young men who went on other film work that brought them the Academy Award for Best Actor.  They were Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage and Forest Whitaker.

I saw Lee Daniels' The Butler Friday afternoon in San Francisco.  The Butler should bring Forest Whitaker another Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  He's excellent in the complicated title role.  I also feel the film will be a Best Picture nominee.  I expected the movie to be good.  I wasn't prepared for how moving it is and how relevant it is.  Parts are a bit choppy but, overall, it is a most effective film with a reflection of American history that we must remember.  Why?  Because that history lingers over us today like a low fog.  We go back to the 1960s but we cannot help but think of things today like the murder of young Trayvon Martin, the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman (Martin's killer) and this year's Supreme Court action against the Voting Rights Act.  This month, we honor the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's victorious and historic March on Washington in 1963 for Civil Rights.  We'll also commemorate the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination that same year.  From the Friday afternoon of November 22nd when we all got the tragic news bulletin that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas to his funeral four days later, we Americans were paralyzed with a shock and grief that was not matched until September 11th, 2001.  Those four days in November, President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King are seen in The Butler.

I did not expect The Butler to make my cry, but it did.  I've lived through much of that history.  It relates to me.  It related to my parents.  And my grandparents.  I understood the pain, the heartache and the family tensions.  I will wrote more about The Butler later.  Let me just add a couple of things here and now.  One of the strongest elements about the movie is that it shows racial exclusion and inequality aren't the sole domain of the Deep South.  I often feel that well-intentioned Caucasian liberals up North get a bit haughty when watching movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Mississippi Burning, The Color Purple and The Help.  There's the air of "That's how they are down there.  We're not like that.  There's no KKK here."  But we Black folks know the sting of racism above the Mason-Dixon Line.  I'll give you my personal story.  Where was I called "nigger" several times by white people for a few years?  When I worked in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Where did a TV executive flat-out tell me that, despite my good work, I'd not be getting equal pay and I'd not be promoted?  New York City.  Where was I respectfully called "Sir" and treated well by white folks during out-of-town television assignments?  Atlanta, Georgia.  This summer, Paula Deen made headlines with her racial insensitivity.  We both hosted hit shows for Food Network starting in 2002.  She made millions.  I made $58,000 a year hosting a weekly national show.  And forget every two weeks.  I loved working for Food Network but I was lucky if I got my paychecks every two months.    Yes, I totally understood the butler's feelings when trying to get equal pay and equal respect.  He'd been groomed to be a butler.  Society wants Cecil Gaines to be present and perfect yet be invisible and silent.  It wants him to work twice as hard for half the pay that white men make and not complain about it.  This is not technically a biopic.  It's based on accounts from someone's life but Whitaker is not portraying a man who actually existed -- not like when he played jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker in Bird and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, his Oscar-winning performance.  Nor is this totally a Civil Rights drama.  It is a love story/family tale told against the backdrop of history as this butler works for several White House administrations from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.  With a central relationship between a couple brought closer and battered by changing times in American history, Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Gaines are like Hubbell and Katie in Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were and Forrest and Jenny in Robert Zemeckis'  Forrest Gump.  Oprah Winfrey stars as Gloria, the butler's wife and mother of his sons. Gloria has a tendency to drink too much.

Oprah is quite good in her return to big screen acting.  This is not a film in which all the best parts were seen in the trailer.  My favorite scene of Oprah's isn't referenced in the trailer at all.  I want to see The Butler again.

About the press:  I've read and seen reviews that go from raves proclaiming it "one of the best pictures of the year" to "crudely powerful" to those reporting that it's heavy-handed at times but moving.  Most agree that The Butler has strong Oscar chances.  The reviews were from Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, Neil Rosen of NY1, New York's all-news TV channel, and from Sandy Kenyon on ABC 7 in New York.  I read the rave review from A.O. Scott in the New York Times and the Scott Foundas review in Variety.  In his Los Angeles Times article on the film for the "Critical Mass" column, Oliver Gettell included reviews of The Butler from Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, David Edelstein of CBS Sunday Morning, National Public Radio and New York Magazine, Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice, Jocelyn Noveck of Associated Press and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.  

They're all white movie critics.  Why is it that movie critics can spot racial inequality and exclusion in stories on the big screen but they never seem to notice and call it out in their own field?  Has there ever been one black film critic in the previous century or this current one who -- like critic David Edelstein -- has had a gig on a network news program, a national radio show and written for a national magazine at the same time?  It would've been great to read comments from African-American film critics in Oliver Gettel's piece for the L.A. Times online last Friday. Gettel's editor should have noticed the racial exclusion.

As I've written before, the only black film critics most Americans have seen regularly on national TV are these two characters from a 1990s comedy series.  The "Men on Film" from In Living Color.

I have a buddy who considers himself to be the ultimate liberal.  We attended the same college.  For a short time, we were middle-aged roommates.  We've known each other over 25 years.  In all those years, he's never introduced me to another black friend of his.  I checked his long list of Facebook friends for others.  I'm positive I'd seen more black people in an Ingmar Bergman movie.  Remember when ABC had that 2011 series about stewardesses in 1963 called Pan Am?  We watched the first three episodes.  I thought the show was glossy but mediocre.  My big criticism was the lack of black actors -- even as extras.  A show takes place in 1963, the same year as the March on Washington, but there were only four black extras in a busy New York airport scene?  Seriously?  A couple in African garb, a skycap carrying luggage and a shoe shine man.  My upscale white liberal buddy from the Midwest thought Pan Am was "fabulous" and didn't even notice the lack of black actors.  THAT'S why movie director Lee Daniels had to get heavy-headed and crudely powerful.  Because a lot of educated and privileged people who mean well and should get it, don't get it.  Sometimes you just have to whack folks upside the head with a cinematic silver tray so they'll get a clue.  Subtlety doesn't always work.
Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was first heard and delivered 50 years ago this month at the March on Washington.

This historic event was covered by the senior three networks -- CBS, ABC and NBC.  When I was a youngster, our family watched the long and important Civil Rights program as a special live CBS News telecast that day in August.

The march with its gathering at the Lincoln Monument did not lack for star power at the podium.

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, novelist James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, singer/songwriters Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and legendary singer/actress Lena Horne all attended the 1963 march.

Here's another point. From Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, when millions of black Americans demanded the right to vote, to the re-election of a black man as President of the United States, there has been only one black journalist hired to anchor the weeknight evening news for one of those senior three networks. Max Robinson was a trailblazer.  He co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.  Robinson died in 1988.

The lack of black film critics, movie historians and commentators on New York City television stuns me.  I was a weekly movie critic on the ABC TV affiliate for in the early 1980s before I took a New York City TV job in 1985.  In Milwaukee, I was even tapped by Chicago PBS to audition to be a replacement when Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Buena Vista syndication.  Cracking the movie critic color barrier in New York was harder.  But I kept at it because it's important.  The arts need diversity.  The TV arts and film arts.  As you regular readers may know, I taped a TV pilot last summer for a weekly film review/interview show.  Another African-American host and I would be your movie team.  We got the greenlight from PBS to shoot it.  PBS, reportedly, was extremely eager to see it.  Although not a new concept, it would be a racial breakthrough with its hosts and would surely interest minority PBS viewers.  This weekend, Channel 13 in New York became the second PBS station to love yet pass politely on our project.  Our little ragtag crew would have to raise all the funding for PBS to be interested and take our venture one giant step further.  Disappointing, yes.  But I'm still proud of what we did with little money.  We all shot the pilot for free -- for the love of the art.  You can see a clip from 2-Shot, our pilot, in my July blogs.  Scroll down to my "Reel Talk on Our TV Pilot" entry from last month.

My totally cool and knowledgeable co-host was Gene Seymour, CNN contributor and formerly the film critic for Newsday in New York City.
I also hoped to have Mia Mask as a frequent contributor on 2-Shot.  She's Associate Professor of Film at Vassar.  I've talked about classic films with Mia.  Fabulous conversation.  She's fascinating and knows film history.  She auditioned with me to be my co-host.  I felt it would be great for people to see an African-American woman reviewing new movies and recommending classic films.  That would also be groundbreaking.  PBS wanted a two-man team for our pilot.  Mia's credits include being a Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Yale and doing commentaries for National Public Radio.
A final note about history and black people -- in 2012, when he was with the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  The first person ever to win that prize was the late Roger Ebert.
I'd love to see them on CBS Sunday Morning talk about Lee Daniels' The Butler or read their comments on it in the L.A. Times online.  Did you see the movie?  I'm interested in reading your comments too.

Lee Daniels' The Butler has Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower dealing with school segregation.  He and Whitaker now both own Academy Awards.  They previously shared screen time in Good Morning, Vietnam.

No black actor has ever won two Best Actor Oscars.  Could Forest Whitaker be the first?


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