LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelly, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Redgrave, David Banner, Mariah Carey
MPAA Rating: (for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)
Running Time: 2:12
Release Date: 8/16/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 16, 2013
There is no lack of ambition in Lee Daniels' The Butler, a movie that attempts to encompass over eight decades of the life of a man and the history of civil rights (or the unofficial and official lack thereof) in the United States during that period. It does not paint a pretty picture of race relations in America (It was not and, sadly, continues, in certain respects, not to be one), but it is an optimistic one. Here is the story of a man whose first pivotal memory is as a young servant picking cotton at a farm in the South, helplessly watching his father being murdered in cold blood for daring to call out the owner for raping and beating his mother, and whose final scenes in the movie see him visiting the White House after voting for the first African American President of the United States.
In between, the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is one of serving as a witness of the way the whims, prejudices, and priorities of the people in power can affect others for the better or the worse. These scenes are inherently fascinating in the way they observe some of the most powerful men in the world as ordinary, conflicted individuals who may want to see justice for the oppressed but can only do so much.
Some of them haven't been entirely convinced and need a little push. Some of them have been convinced but haven't gotten out of their old ways. We see Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber), for example, sitting on the toilet and shouting a certain racial epithet, and this is the man who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
Screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels (whose name, by the way, is awkwardly attached to the title due to a trivial copyright dispute) understand and even embrace the contradictions of their characters. The movie is about the process of learning, and the teacher, the movie suggests, is Cecil (based on Eugene Allen, whose story in an article by Will Haygood serves as the basis for the screenplay), a White House butler who serves for seven Presidents over the course of 29 years. These men of power notice him and the way he stays out of their business in the Oval Office, and they occasionally decide to ask him for advice. Surely he, as a black man who happens to know everything about them and has probably overheard everything that's been said, will have some insight.
The story begins with the murder of Cecil's father (David Banner) and moves forward seven years when the young man (Aml Ameen) is on his own, forced to break into a restaurant just to eat. An employee named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) protects him from the owner and teaches him the ways of the service industry. He gets a job at a fancy hotel and, a few years later, is recruited to become a butler at the White House.
He watches as Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) has to decide how to handle a high school in Arkansas that refuses to accept black students after Brown v. Board of Education. Vice President Richard Nixon (John Cusack, for some reason) comes down to the kitchen to tell Cecil and his co-workers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz play Cecil's closest friends there) that he's the best option for them in the next election.
He helps John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) with his pain medication, sees the President come to the realization that something must be done to support civil rights leaders while watching police in Birmingham sic dogs and spray fire hoses at protesters on television, and tries to console Jacqueline Kennedy (Minka Kelly), still wearing the dress covered in her husband's blood. Decades later, he convinces Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), whose wife Nancy (Jane Fonda) had invited him to a White House dinner as a guest, to pull some executive weight to ensure that the black staff of the White House receives equal compensation for their work.
The material in the White House is condensed in scope but convincing. The other half of the movie involves Cecil's home life, which is reduced to his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) turning from a life of heavy drinking and carrying on an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) to becoming a better person, and a contrived series of subplots involving his eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who sees his father as weak and wants to fight the good fight for equality. Louis' story puts him in a position to be present at almost every major event of the civil rights movement, from participating with the Freedom Riders to having no less than Martin Luther King Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) tell him that Cecil's role as a domestic worker gives him one of the best opportunities to fight racism.In theory, the juxtaposition of the two storiesófather and sonóworks structurally and thematically as their of dueling actionsówork with those on the ground and influence on those in poweróreflect and complement each other. The coincidences can only go so far, though, and eventually, the intentions of Lee Daniels' The Butler are overpowered by them and the heavy-handed way they serve as bridge through history.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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