Monday, August 19, 2013

Armond White, Harry Lennix, and Richard Lawson On the Cinematic Vapidity, Historical Distortions, and Melodramatic Banality Of 'The Butler'


Guest blog: "Black filmmakers give us terrible images and messages. I reject them wholesale -- our creations must have beauty"
Black Entertainment Depicts a Stream of Craven and Depraved Sociopaths - Let's Reclaim It
By Harry Lennix
August 15, 2013

On a late October afternoon about two years ago, my wife and I were driving down a quiet Houston street on a rare visit with family when we witnessed a moment of joy that drew our attention: a man of about 30 years, hoisting his giddy 4-year-old son upon his strong shoulder in the fluttering shadows. They shared a splendid moment in each other’s company, very probably unaware that we were observing. The boy and man of the moment were black.

The strange thing is, we knew with absolute certainty that such occasions are commonplace in black communities. I see them; I know them. Healthy, loving, altogether ordinary black fathers and sons go to my church and walk my streets.

The only place I never see normal black folks represented is in the increasingly popular films (and reality shows and music) being masqueraded as indicative of the Black Experience. A troubling stream of craven and depraved sociopaths and psychotics haunt the environs of black entertainment. The doom these figures inflict upon their familiars is taken for granted as a natural condition of our people.

These images and messages do not represent the predominant experiences and nature of my people -- and I, for one, want it as widely known as possible that I reject them wholesale.

I take no part with, nor give any corner to, those who keep us in bondage as a function of these images. I reject the reduction of the traumatized but decent people I know as marginalized slaves and menials. Equally bankrupt are the media offerings that show us as sanitized and shallow beyond recognition -- devoid of serious concerns outside of those that are worthy of soap-opera treatment.

I do not wish to infringe upon the rights of any artist or private citizen to make whatever statement they wish. It is my intention to help open up an entire universe of actual, real-life, human people who more than “happen” to be black -- rather to those who are black on purpose -- for whom black is “The New Black.” To expand the accounting of a people who have dimension and meaning in their lives so that they are presented in a way that is true to them as individuals. It is my hope to reveal that in this age of increasing means of distribution, when we have a golden opportunity to redefine the images of black people. It is my argument that the common view of Black Life is too often abstracted and perverted, so much so that it has become the received version of the truth -- and that such received information is literally and figuratively killing us.

A reasonable parallel lies in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This famous thought experiment starts with the condition of bondage: several prisoners are compelled by chains to look only straight ahead. They are presented solely with the image of shadows cast upon the wall by a fire, and the actors who move between it and the prisoners. But even after they are freed and allowed to see the actual people projecting the shadows, the prisoners continue to accept the shadows as reality.

This is exceptionally apropos of the state of blacks in film. Our shadows are accepted as reality. The troubling realization for me is that we are, ourselves, the agents who are the cause of the shadows, the prisoners compelled to accept them, and the very shadows on the walls.

With greater frequency black filmmakers are saying terrible things about the inhabitants of Black America. While viewing a black film of the recent past (choose your own), I saw black women weeping their eyes out, scene after scene, abused and victimized by black men in a relentless parade of misery. What joy, I wondered, is to be found in this? Even in pathos, of course there is release. But surely there is a difference between pathos and sadomasochism.

Ironically, very little of artistic merit or craft is to be found in the dramatically bereft constructions of the other variety of black movie. Many of these projects feature very talented and attractive casts, slick direction, and high production values. The subject matter is seldom of great ambition or depth. They are designed to please the broadest possible demographic of black ticket buyers. Most of this work is innocent and innocuous enough, and thank goodness for this alternative. That stipulated, it would be less than honest to point to but a small few of these as artistically satisfying.

There appears to be a formula at work. On one side, form follows function: entire histories are corrupted, twisted fantasies concocted, so that the filmmakers can elicit the baser instincts of an audience. Then there is the inverse where function follows form: gorgeous people in thinly dramatic situations, scarcely requiring craft and imagination to execute.

It is my contention that there is a third way: The practice of aesthetics implies the necessity of a drive toward natural instincts and refinement through study. Aesthetics concerns itself with cravings, yes, but also with taste. Where aesthetics are applied to broad comedy, profound tragedy, or that vast sweep of the in between, we have seen a long history of great cinema and theater.

Despite my many failings in my artistic pursuits, I have always been too burdened with respect for aesthetics to do less than endeavor to these ends. That when entertainment is destructive of these ends, it can no longer be deemed “art.” It may, instead, be seen as pandering -- an appeal to the lowest common urges: the creation of objects of pity and derision. Objectified, ignored, appeased.

In a rueful observation made in the Chicago Tribune, HL Menken once opined: “No one in this world -- ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

I guess that gets proven just about all the time. But that does not negate the possibility that those who strive toward a higher standard are consigned to the breadline. It seems to me urgent, now more that ever before, to start providing at the very minimum an alternative view.

To this end, I join the artists and liberated people who paved the way, who held the line on the basic understanding that our solemn duty is to insist that art is always a celebration of life. We were taught that in creating art, our creations must have ease, form, beauty, and entirety.

At the time of this writing my company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), is on the precipice of releasing our first film. It is called “Mr. Sophistication.” We are proud of the film and we definitely hope that you will see and enjoy it. It is something that we poured our best efforts into, and have aspired as much as we might to refine its form, beauty, and entirety. As for the ease of it all – well, that’s a lot more complicated.

We are especially thrilled at our cast: Tatum O’Neal, Robert Patrick, Paloma Guzman, Gina Torres, Richard Brooks, to name a few.

“Mr. Sophistication” is Ron Waters, a comedian who has a second shot at making a first impression. To do so, he needs to work in Los Angeles. While there, he has to confront the same crises of character that derailed him the first time. Along the way, he has some laughs, quite a few drinks, and an occasional life lesson.

Our goal for the film is to entertain. Notwithstanding the opening paragraphs of this writing, we do not claim that the film is panacea for all the ills that beset the downtrodden. No single film could ever be. This is our first foray into the world of film production, and we feel that it is part of our duty to show, rather than merely lament, the qualities that have come to define “black film.” If you will, it is the cinematic equivalent of a hoist upon the shoulder in the late Houston sun.

It is, of course, a typical response to decry the easy categorization of “Mr. Sophistication” as a “black film.” Let us then reclaim the definition of “black.” The ownership of the word once belonged to a people who declared their power and beauty to the world. Those who claimed the word viewed it with pride whereas some of their ancestors strongly eschewed it. The word eventually came to define an entire movement.

There are still echoes of it out there. And thank God there are still those who use the mediums available to them to create great art. To them belongs the future, should they only take the initiative to reclaim the present. And, please God, in reclaiming the idea of “black.”

After all, everything cool and edgy in our collective experience now is said to be the new version of black.

Frankly, I’d settle for the old kind. It beats the heck out of sitting chained up in a cave.

Harry Lennix is an accomplished film, television and stage actor who played General Swanwick in Warner Bros.’ summer blockbuster “Man of Steel” and stars on the new fall NBC series “The Blacklist” with James Spader. His several film credits include “Ray,” "Get On the Bus", “State of Play” and the “The Matrix” trilogy. His most recent film, “Mr. Sophistication,” will be available on VOD Sept. 6, and he’s near completion on “H4,” a film version of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.”    


Run, Forest, Run
Aug 13, 2013
City Arts

Civil Rights history gets trivialized in Lee Daniels’ The Butler'

“The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” says Clarence Williams III, instructing his waiter-trainee on the etiquette of black servitude in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s a funny line for this film since director Lee (Precious) Daniels always makes a big noise when he enters a room–this time releasing a film with his own name in the title same as Fellini’s 8 ½ or Tyler Perry’s Diary of Mad Black Woman no less.

How Daniels asserts/inserts himself into his films is crucial to the failings of…oh, let’s just call it The Butler. While Daniels purports to make a biography of Cecil Gaines, a Black Southerner who went from picking cotton in Georgia to serving as butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations, the film primarily displays Daniels’ opportunism. Taking advantage of our strange, polarized political moment, The Butler only makes noise about race–simplifying the history that Gaines lived through from Jim Crow to 2008–implying that Gaines’s story prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama. So soon after Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln, another foreshortening of American history.

The Butler’s major malfunction is its inexact parallel to Obama’s own biography; Gaines’s suffering through the post-slavery experience is completely different from Obama’s story. Daniels feeds the marketable concept that Gaines’s very particular sojourn represents the entirety of Black America’s struggle for equality. He distorts Gaines’s private life into a national epic, making him an emblem rather than a character.

Everyone here, from limousine liberal parade of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to the various Presidential caricatures (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman), look like waxworks. From the beginning, Forest Whittaker plays the title role as a gaunt, wizened symbol of oppression and endurance–a Morgan Freeman figure of quiet dignity and rectitude. His wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons (David Oyewelo and Isaac White) seem like appendages rather than family. Gaines’s estrangement from his world suggests a reverse Benjamin Button aging through decades, keeping quiet during eras of social turmoil. He—and this film–most resembles Forrest Gump, that symbolic idiot savant witness to social progress he played no part in.

The Butler is unconvincingly noble–without even that streak of psychotic behavior in the ridiculous shit pie scenes of The Help. Gaines is always crotchety and proper, leaving dirty-minded resilience to Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr in scene-stealing supporting roles–they’re surrogates for Daniels the salacious auteur who’s uninterested in what propriety and self-control mean.

Instead of a freaky-deaky view of the Civil Rights Movements’ behind-the-scenes hook-ups (even Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waves quotes Martin Luther King defending masturbation as a great release), we get an Obama-ized tale of Gaines as a dogged, enigmatic paragon. Rectitude as political caution was better dramatized in Brian Helgeland’s far superior Jackie Robinson story, 42. But this film is so solemn and disingenuous it neglects its opening thesis: Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong never confess what it feels like to make a room “feel empty” (although Whitaker’s zombie performance inadvertently gives an inkling). They trade the existential torment of self-abnegation (refuted by decades of Hollywood’s servile-yet-impudent stereotypes) for the cliche of long-suffering martyrdom. (Daniels lacks the talent to show what being close to power feels like.)

A more credible film would consistently portray the advice of Gaines’s father “Don’t lose your temper with the Man. Dis his worl’; we jus’ livin’ in it.” The Butler will feel inauthentic to most Americans who painfully, cagily work menial jobs; it is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment.

Daniels’ key trope is the presumptuous montage: Lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s contrasting formal White House dinner parties–pseudo-political juxtapositions that would make Eisenstein wince. Daniels uses montage for sensationalism–not feeling or politics. The entire film exploits subtle and overt American racial violence. The first striking image poses a lynching next to the American flag. Such cheap, Spike Lee rhetoric trivializes history. The 1929 flashback to Gaines’s mother being raped and father being killed isn’t just horrible, it’s an infuriating simplification: The son’s modern attitude shows ignorance of Southern custom; pressuring his father (“Pop, what you gonna do?”) is what gets his Dad killed. When titles say “Inspired by a true story” it merely means an anachronistic fantasy of Black American history adapted from Wil Haygood’s propagandistic Washington Post article (“A Butler Well Served By This Election”) celebrating Obama’s inauguration.

This fantasy includes casting Mariah Carey as the mother defiled and made crazy by the puzzlingly pretty white plantation-owner (Alex Pettyfer) and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s horny, boozing then devoted wife. Only Oprah–in a role better suited to Mo’Nique–could act self-righteous about committing adultery (dismissing her “yellow ass” lover). Oprah’s not a character but a Black Womanist Figurehead which places this film far outside the artful realm of Jonathan Demme’s magnificent Beloved. The subplot of Gaines’s conflict with his politically-wayward son merely extenuates the story without delving into the father’s painful, necessary political reticence. Worse, it misrepresents what Lorraine Hansberry explicated about the Black generation gap in A Raisin in the Sun.

Daniels panders to the hip-hop attitude that Black youth know more about survival than their hard-working ancestors. The scene of Gaines driving through urban chaos in response to MLK’s assassination is as phony as the riot scenes in Dreamgirls. Pandering to history and violence lacks the politic detail of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther; this more resembles Tarantino’s unrealistic s&m circus Django Unchained. These discomforting prevarications are angled toward Obama's “Tonight is your answer” election speech—turning historical pain into shallow, maudlin victory. Daniels’ tendency to falsify Black American experience and then exploit it is as offensive as Spielberg-Kushner’s factitious Lincoln. A more personally honest, openly licentious fantasy would be more interesting. Now that he’s played his Obama card, I’m sure Lee Daniels’ Satyricon will come next.

Harry Lennix Takes On 'The Butler' - Says Lee Daniels 'N*ggerfies It,' Calls It 'Historical Porn'

JULY 11, 2013
SHADOW AND ACT: On Cinema of the African Diaspora


First some background...

Several months ago or so, I did an interview for another site with actor Harry Lennix, who all of you know, and was seen this summer in Warner Bros' huge Superman reboot, Man of Steel. But the interview wasn't about that; it was instead about Harry's upcoming indie projects, like the fascinating Mr. Sophistication, directed by Danny Green, in which he plays a Richard Pryor-like self-destructive comedian attempting a comeback, and his all-black version of Shakespeare's Henry IV, called H4, which has just finished post-production. And both of those are on top of 6 other pictures he's completed that are scheduled to be released next year.

Knowing Harry personally for many years, we really had more of a conversation than an interview; he is, as always, up front, totally honest and says exactly what he thinks. And that is so refreshing, considering how most people in the business are reluctant to speak out on anything, or be opinionated.

However, when the interview appeared on the other site where it was posted, it was severely edited, to put it nicely, and a lot of what he said was cut out, evidently fearing that Harry had stepped on some toes. Especially what Harry said about black imagery in the media and, in particular, Lee Daniels' upcoming film The Butler, with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, about the long-serving butler who worked at the White House - a film that's currently in the middle of a court battle over the title, between The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros.

As you can read below, Harry is not too thrilled about the film:

Which leads me to asking do you constantly have to think about the image you are portraying as black man every time to do a role?

"I think about it every day and any time that a role is offered, and believe me lots of crummy roles are offered. But at this point people know better than to mess with me with a lot of these things. For example Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “niggerfies” it. He "niggers" it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well... historical porn. I refused."

Well that’s not good.

"And people want to see these images so they’ll say things like: “It’s a very difficult movie to look at, but it’s great movie.” That’s a contradiction in terms. That’s a paradox. It can’t be that it’s a great movie, but it’s difficult to look at. You know what I mean? (laughs) Why would you put these images out there? But clearly the critics, many of them, love to see this kind of material and love to see us in these types of roles."

Because it feeds into…

"Because it feeds into the great lie that is being perpetrated by the most important medium, the most powerful export that the United States has to offer which is entertainment. The most powerful tool that they have and it has kept us in a place, men in dresses and things, raping their daughters and things. While any sort of aberrant behavior happens in any community, it has become normative in black cinema that we are these bestial, deprived people, and I refuse to play with that."

Well just keep fighting the good fight.

"I’ll never take part in it. They can kiss my ass (laughs). But it’s not going to happen."

That's my man Harry telling it like it is.


'The Butler' Doesn't Do It

The Weinstein Company


There's a lot of indicating going on in The Butler, Lee Daniels's sorta-based-on-a-true-story historical drama about a longtime White House butler and the tumult of the civil rights struggle. As is the trouble with so many biopics, films that often play like hurried slideshows of a life, The Butler attempts to infuse every scene with Importance and Meaning. To that end, five past U.S. presidents each get a scene talking specifically about race issues, while our hero, played by Forest Whitaker, does his quiet work around them. For a melancholy Eisenhower, played by Robin Williams, it's the matter of school integration. Kennedy (a better than expected James Marsden) frets about the injustices suffered by the Freedom Riders and their allies. Johnson, given charming good-ol-boy bluntness by Liev Schreiber, vows to fix the whole dang mess. John Cusack, doing a surprisingly understated Nixon, dirtily strategizes about courting the black vote. And Reagan, mostly bungled by an oddly accented Alan Rickman, mulls over the civil rights crisis in South Africa. Each scene is a little package presentation about the respective presidents' stances on civil rights, meant to inform us while briskly moving the story along.

But instead they do the unfortunate work of reducing the long, painful struggle to a series of soundbites. There's nothing particularly informative or dramatic about Danny Strong's script or the way Daniels stages it. Neither insightful documentary nor compelling fiction, The Butler spends most of its time in the dreary middle lands of corny reenactment, pointing and pointing and pointing at flat moments meant to be profound, moving, enlightening. Whitaker does lovely work throughout, but his character, Cecil Gaines, spends most of the movie passively receiving all this canned history. He's ultimately a cipher, bobbing along in a broad simplification of American history like Forrest Gump, only without all the endearing goofiness and homey sayings.

Cecil's oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) goes through all his "necessary" phases too: from smart and rebellious youth to radicalizing college student to courageous Freedom Rider to angry Black Panther to earnest adult politician. His arc feels very programmatic (and was invented for the film), Daniels and Strong articulating the civil rights struggle in its most basic terms. The history of the era only feels vital when Cecil and Louis are together and fighting, the father whose job it is to be invisible clashing with the son who wants to be seen. In one tense, engrossing scene, a reunion dinner is ruined when Louis's (and his Black Panther girlfriend's) obvious disdain for his father's relatively bourgeoisie, unquestioning life sends Cecil into a rare rage. Daniels is much better when he's closing in on the personal, the domestic texture of the larger political landscape. But alas he keeps pulling back and in strides another famous person who sorta looks like an old president to let us know where we are in the story.

The film is indeed full of famous people — aside from those I've already mentioned, there's Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow butlers, a wordless Mariah Carey as Cecil's traumatized mother, Terrence Howard as a ne'er-do-well neighbor, Jane Fonda commanding attention as Nancy Reagan — but certainly none is more famous than Oprah Winfrey. (Unless you're a Swiss boutique clerk, at least.) Winfrey plays Cecil's wife Gloria, and unlike most of the other familiar faces who quickly glide by and disappear as history marches along, she's really in the movie. Oprah's proven herself a capable actress in her few roles over the past thirty years, and handles a lot of heavy lifting proficiently. She boozes, she grieves, she seethes, she sobers up. She's good in the film, but like so much of the other bold-name casting, it unfortunately reads distractingly like a gimmick. It adds to the sense that The Butler is a message more than a movie.

One well-conceived sequence weaves together shots of the White House staff preparing for a fancy state dinner and a lunch counter sit-in that turns violent. Gleaming silverware is straightened and plates rotated just so as Louis and his friends are beaten and have hot coffee thrown in their faces. It's an effective, if a bit obvious, juxtaposition and hints at a movie Daniels could have made. It's a rare moment in The Butler when anticipation for the next famous face or Big Moment dissipates and we are instead truly startled and horrified by the injustices, and stirred by the bravery, of the fairly recent past. It's been a long time since we've had a good movie about this defining (and not-really-over) part of our history, and there are teasing moments in The Butler when I thought we might be getting just that. But for all the beauty in Whitaker's precise, restrained performance and the array of talent that surrounds him, the movie leaves little impact.  Strangely for a Lee Daniels movie, it's too polite, too much an attempt at universal appeal in all of its sentimentality. I t's inoffensive, but if it weren't for all the star caliber, you wouldn't even notice it in a room.