Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Movie goers and friends,

I begin with a printed out blog on religion and conflict on my right. My student’s work on my left. A bottle of water in front of me. And my kitchen fan on to stir the air of my apartment.

I want to spend tonight’s post on my reflections of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I just came back from the theater and I have not had the chance to fully digest the film, but I want to try something different and post with my immediate thoughts on the film rather than wait out the digestion.

In my film club at my high school I planned to teach my students about Mise en scene. But this week, due to field trips and doctor’s appointments, we only had two members of Cinema Sunset show. After they decided to watch Hairspray, I decided a lesson on mise en scene will wait for another day. (Although it might have been a perfect example). So, I will teach all my followers what I was hoping to pass on to my students.

Mise en scene is often defined as everything that is seen on the screen during a shot. From the costumes, set, props, actors, lighting, sound, composition (positioning of characters)…etc. The pieces of mise en scene affect the mood of the film, the message of the film, and help express the film’s vision. For today, and specifically for Lee Daniels’ The Butler,  I want to focus on the idea of mise en scene with an emphasis on costume.

The Butler is a story about Cecil Gaines, a son of a cotton farmhand raised to the ranks of butler to the White House. Serving presidents Eisenhower to Reagan, Cecial Gaines effectively saw the tumultuous growing pains of America during the Civil Rights Movement. The film, in many ways, reminds me of Forrest Gump–the story of a man growing up during America’s most recent revolution and how he played a role in

American history. While Lee Daniels’ film was inspired by true events, the story had an overwhelming emotional agenda seeking to hit the audience right in the “feels” in order to portray its message and honor those who sought change during the Civil Rights Movement.

While Forest Whitaker gives a fine performance as Cecil and as Orpah Winfrey gives a surprisingly strong performance as Cecil’s wife Gloria, I don’t want to spend too much time on acting. Let’s then move to the costumes.

As a butler, Cecil and the others mus wear the typical black and white uniform. It is the uniform and the costume that carries the central message (or messages) of this film. The clear message is in relation to race. Black vs. White. The colors are stark opposites and represent a clear divide and tension. White is the color of purity and innocence. Black is the color of power, elegance, wealth, but also of evil and sadness. The film is about the two colors clashing and experiencing great pain as equality is sought and fought for and against. As these two colors collide it is only proven that there is a big difference between the two but they can coexist.

Now, the other meaning of the costume and the role of costume in helping express the vision of the film lies in the true job of being a butler. Cecil Gaines, after being invited as a guest to Reagan’s dinner remarks…”I could see the two faces the butler wore to serve and I knew I lived my life by those two faces.” The most memorable moment when Cecil and Gloria fashion the white and black is on Cecil’s birthday. Gloria is sporting a stunning and retro black and white dress. Cecil is sent upstairs to put on his gift…a matching attire of black and white. It is clear that throughout thole film and that throughout all of Cecil’s life he has acted just like his outfit. Two faces. Two opposite colors. Hiding emotion and true feeling he as stymied his own personal growth and opinion. Fighting to balance these two lives, his marriage come in jeopardy. He has been set in his ways of living a two faced life, hiding himself in plain sight as if he were never there, hearing nothing, saying nothing. His life was as simple as black and white. He played the white man’s game in order to help (whether implicitly or not) raise the black man’s name. All along Cecil’s life and the life of a butler is as clear as their outfit. That is why Cecil’s son Louis doesn’t wear black or white. Louis lives with color, evolves into all black, and emerges through back in red by the end of the film. Gloria only sports black and white when her life has become more clear and more like that of her husband’s.

While I understand that these notices and my statement may not be a grand comment or deeply profound statement on The Butler, it is rather a note, an explanation, of the importance of mise en scene towards the development and message of a film and its characters. These are the pieces of artwork that come into play when movies are seen as art. This is what I was hoping my students were to learn on Friday, but it will have to wait a week.

I end with the same set up as I started. Nothing new has changed. But my thoughts are down and another post it up. I am glad you read. I hope you enjoyed and took something away from the post.

’til next time,

Mitty

Perks of Being a Teacher

Movie goers and friends,

I start at the kitchen table of my new apartment in Sunderland. My Ipad playing an episode of “New Girl,” An empty Subway cup in the background. My teaching supplies sprawled on the table. And my newly printed Cinema Sunset Membership cards for my students on the table. 

So, I know it has been a while, so let me catch you all up. I was living in a hotel room for a month. I was incredibly stressed, nervous, and doubtful before starting my new job as a high school history teacher in Springfield. As previously mentioned, I have moved into my apartment and after three weeks of school, I am finally back to loving my job. I have gotten in trouble with my students for causing a disturbance in the courtyard for being too loud (our “Clash of Civilizations” tug of war got a little too competitive!) But I have also started a film club at my new school. We started the year watching Beasts of  the Southern Wild and continued this week with Perks of Being A Wallflower. So, today, I want to talk a little bit about the idea of the film club, the movies we watched, and what I hope to be doing in the upcoming weeks.

 

Let’s start with Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film is set in Hurricane Katrina New Orleans on a remote and self-isolated island of Bathtub. The film follows the story of a little girl, Hush Puppy, and her father as they try to survive the floods following Hurricane Katrina. I will try not to give away too many spoilers. But the film is a true piece of art. The story is riveting and touches the sole of the audience. While mythical creatures set the stage as the central metaphor for the relationship of Hush Puppy and her father and Hush Puppy and her friends, the story is about the courage to face oneself and persevere through the pain and turmoil of experience tragedy. If losing her mother wasn’t enough, Hush Puppy has to struggle through being raised by a prideful alcoholic of a father and the loss experienced during Katrina. The mythical, prehistoric beasts, “Aurochs” serve as motivation for Hush Puppy to push through her life and emerge a strong, independent, and powerful person. As she escapes from the FEMA hospital and makes her way back to her father in Bathtub, the Aurochs, who have been chasing her since the beginning of the film, finally catch up with her. As her friends flee from the danger, Hush Puppy stops and turns around to face the Aurochs face to face. The beasts not simply represent the residents of Bathtub and her father, but they represent the person Hush Puppy is. She didn’t fully see her potential and face her fears until she turned to face the lead Auroch. She wasn’t simply confronting the beast, but she was confronting herself–all of her fears; her fears of being left alone, her pain of losing her mother, her pain of growing up with a stubborn, alcoholic, but loving father, the fears of being only five years old and having to somehow figure out how to live. As Hush Puppy and the Auroch go face to face it is almost as if Hush Puppy is looking at a mirror. She has to confront herself in order to continue living and become even stronger as her father falls ill. At five years old, Hush Puppy has to be a woman.

 

While it is well known that the movie industry is male dominated and portrays women constantly being entangled in relationship issues or as wannabe men, this film is a piece for feminists to be proud of. Hush Puppy has no romantic engagements. Yes, she is portrayed as a daughter and the narrative of father-daughter exists, but it is not the point of the film. The message of the film is what the Aurochs represent. And to have a five year old girl as the lead in the narrative is a championing moment for all those who wish to see women given the roles and characters of strength, respect, and fearlessness.

Now, we watched Beasts of the Southern Wild because my rental on Amazon could not be accessed at school. But the impact was left on my club members. As tears ran down their faces, the meaning was clear and the impact was worthy. It was a good way to start the club. But for the second week, we got to watch their first choice–Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

 

Now, we all love our high school dramas. Especially high schoolers. It wasn’t out of the norm for a teen drama. A young man who has experience such great pain struggles with his demons and falls for the one girl that resists her feelings for him but only soon succumbs to her true love for him. It is a good story, It is a good movie. I understand why it was a big hit with my students. Logan Lerman stars as Charlie. Emma Watson stars as the love interest. I don’t want to dive too much into the story, because it is a simple plot and a the character development is predictable. But I rather want to say that it brought me back to my high school years. Now, I never had any of the experiences Charlie had. And as a teacher, I know that no class, no matter where you are, what subject you teach, how long you have taught, who you are, will EVER  quiet down complete after a simply “shh.” But I digress. 

 

It brought me back to the feelings of being a teenager and wanting to have a reason for my pain and insecurity. I had no reason for feeling like I did in high school. I had no reason for feeling a bit depressed. But I knew I wanted to have a reason. It remains a confusing age for me but that is what high school is about. We are dealing with emotions that aren’t quite mature yet. Charlie lost his best friend to suicide. His aunt was killed in a car accident after saying she was going to get his Christmas gift. He suffers from PTSD. He has a reason for his depression and his pain. At least for me, I never had a reason for my emotions. I had an empty pain that for some strange reason caused me to want to experience real pain. I wanted my character to be tested. So, I want to say that it is these high school dramas that reflect this larger culture in our youth. I have students who experience pain, who struggle everyday with their lives. I have students who are similar to Charlie. And I remain the Paul Rudd standing in the classroom hoping I leave an impact on at least one person–hoping that I can change one life for the better. 

Well, I was hoping not to open up about my personal life in a blog, but it was the film that caused these feelings. It was part of the experience of Perks of Being A Wallflower. These films come out every so often to be a reflection for the new high school generation. They are movies that kids hold on to because as high schoolers, we all were filled with emotions and hormones. Just as The Breakfast Club was the high school movie for my generation and before, Perks of Being A Wallflower is the new thing for high schoolers to identify with. It is Hollywood’s attempt to keep a young audience in its grasp but also to give a young audience their growing up experience. Just as a coming of age novel can be perennial, so can the high school drama. It is part of Hollywood cyclical nature. Its a recycling center. Old stories get reborn in the new generations and stir up old emotions for the older audience. 

 

So, what should be appearing in the upcoming weeks, it is my hope, are blog posts from my students! I want to begin to have them write about their movie-going experiences at our Cinema Sunset club. I am planning on teaching them different features of film in order to deepen their analysis and reflection. I have made them Cinema Sunset membership cards to cement the idea of our little club and culture. And also as a trial run for the future when I open up the Cinema Sunset movie theater.

  I end with pretty much the same set up as I started. Ipad is now off. My cell phone is buzzing. My mind is still racing with lesson plan thoughts, things I have to do, and where I need to go. But I am off to Rhode Island for a little R & R to celebrate the coming of fall and a good three weeks at school. 

’til next time,

Mitty