Entertainment LIFESTYLE  >  Summer 2013 Movies: Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”

Summer 2013 Movies: Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”

Summer 2013 Movies: Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”
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Get out your Oscar ballots. It’s time to mark a clear winner. Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” will be catnip to the Academy; a sweeping historical canvas with an intimate personal story in the forefront. And unlike “The Help”, which also covered major historical events in the Civil Rights era, this one has African Americans front and center instead of relegated to the sidelines.

This rousing saga is based on the true story of a black man who grew up in the South, lost his parents to racist hate and who went on to serve in the White House. Despite the broad backdrop, Daniels never loses sight of the individual whose life we are watching unfold. As played by Forest Whitaker (Oscar winner for “The Last King of Scotland”), Cecil Gaines is a fascinating subject. At once part of history, yet standing back from it, his life reflects America’s changing face from the 1920s to his death in 2009. When we consider his childhood, it is almost too much to believe that he lived to see a black man in the White House.

Gaines grew up on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia.  Daniels quickly and precisely paints the picture of his early life. His mother (Mariah Carey, in an almost unrecognizable cameo) is raped by the son of the plantation owner. When Cecil, a young boy, urges his father to action, his father is coldly shot dead. That trauma and subsequent guilt is not explicitly referred to again, but it underscores Cecil’s formation as an adult in profound ways.

Cecil’s journey brings him to Washington and eventually a position as butler at the White House where he stays as seven administrations come and go. His co-workers include Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow domestics. With the time constraints of a movie, and an ensemble cast of very recognizable actors, the film could be accused of unreeling like a history lesson as all the usual “big” moments flash before us on screen. Cecil is there like a diligent Forrest Gump as the notable faces of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s pass by. Ike Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden) Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis), Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (a spitting image Jane Fonda) and many other familiar faces appear. But Daniels refrains from his showboating directing style that was so obvious in his recent “The Paperboy” and the strangely baroque “Shadowboxer”. Besides the excellent performances from his large cast, he handles the period touches with subtlety and affect.

Cecil’s wife Gloria is played by Oprah Winfrey who hasn’t been seen on the big screen since “Beloved” in 1998.  Her performance here is remarkable, wavering between proud, angry, adulterous and finally accepting of her husband’s position. She and Whitaker have an amazing comfort together on screen and scenes with their sons are alive with familial tension and electricity. One of their sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a radical Civil Rights activist, joining the Freedom Riders and then the Black Panthers. His life stands in direct contrast to his father’s and Louis resents Cecil for his passivity and acceptance of the status quo. But Cecil wants to work, he wants to be good at what he does and he truly believes that he can change things from the inside by being hardworking and trustworthy. Eventually he is rewarded but it takes over three decades.

With a smoothly evolving set design and costumes that change with the passing years, it’s easy to get lost in Cecil’s story. I was surprised by how quickly 2 hours passed and disappointed to find myself in the 21st century with Cecil’s story coming to a close. Yes, parts of “The Butler” feel episodic and pedantic, but there is no denying the power of Danny Strong’s script. Strong, no stranger to the political arena with “Recount” and “Game Change” on his resume, manages to blend the personal with the political with remarkable impact.

When Cecil first arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, he is asked if he is political. He replies in the negative. And truly, it would be impossible to have strong political convictions and serve tea to Johnson in one decade and Reagan in another.  Likewise, Daniels refrains from overt politicizing by recounting history from Cecil’s perspective, an outsider looking in. That’s not to say that there isn’t outrage and anger. We feel that in Whitaker’s quietly powerful performance. But we also feel pride and patriotism. And a film that combines all of those elements is sure to be remembered come Oscar night.






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