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

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