Friday, September 20, 2013

The Butler (Rhoades)

“The Butler”
Serves Up a Look At Civil Rights

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

It would be easy to dismiss “The Butler” as “Driving Miss Daisy” set in the Oval Office. But this movie starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey has a more serious purpose -- to explain the Civil Rights Movement while contrasting it with the mostly true story of a White House butler’s 34-year service to his country.

This historical drama directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is now playing at the Tropic Cinema. Go see it.

The movie pretends to focus on the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a protagonist who witnesses the rape of his mother (Mariah Carey) and the murder of his father (David Banner), is trained to be a house servant by Mizz Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), then goes on to work at the White House.
But this parade of presidents is merely an excuse to tell the story of Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), a boy who joins the Civil Right Movement, sits in at lunch counters, strategizes with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelson Ellis), faces the Ku Klux Klan, spends a lot of time getting beaten up and arrested, and becomes a member of the Black Panthers along with his radical girlfriend (Yaya DaCosta).

In the end, Louis opts for a more peaceful protest and his estranged father eventually comes around to understand his son’s heroic stance.

The film gains stature with its notable black actors -- among them Oprah; Terence Howard; Cuba
Gooding, Jr.; Lenny Kravitz; and Clarence Williams III. But Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo take center stage as father and son. And Oprah gives a strong backup performance as the imperfect wife.
Forest Whitaker won an Academy Award for his role in “The Last King of Scotland,” but this is likely the film for which he will be remembered. He fits his character as snugly as those white gloves Cecil wears to polish the White House’s silverware.

If “The Butler” falters, it’s in the stunt casting of the U.S. Presidents whom Cecil serves -- Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower (but looking more like Harry Truman); John Cusack as Richard Nixon (replete with a false nose); James Marsden as John Kennedy and Minka Kelly as Jackie (looking the part, but slightly mismatched in height); Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson (beagle at his side); Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda as Nancy (him cooing about being on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement and her inviting the help to State Dinners). Orlando Eric Street makes a fleeting impression as Barrack Obama, but mostly Obama, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter appear in archival footage, a contrast to the contrived images.

All this is a tad distracting when we’re trying to forget this is a movie and receive its message.
The character of Cecil Gaines is actually based on a real-life White House butler named Eugene Allen, who worked there during eight presidential terms from 1952 to 1986. Allen started as a “pantry man” and retired as maître d’hôtel, the head butler. Danny Strong based his screenplay on an article titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” that appeared in the Washington Post.
The addition of the director’s name to the title (it’s officially called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) was not a matter of ego, but due to a ruling by the MPAA that he add it to distinguish the film from a 1916 silent movie also titled “The Butler.”

Nonetheless, this is a movie that Lee Daniels should be proud of. He encapsulates the struggle of blacks in America into 132 minutes. And tells a riveting -- and important -- story in the process.


1 comment:

Paula Angelique Hafner said...

I loved this film. I could not believe it was true. What an amazing history to have experienced.