^ Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in “The Butler”
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In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, you couldn’t ask for a better movie–or I should say, movies–to help carve out a common understanding at the middle of the racial divide. No matter how you took the Zimmerman decision, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” delivered an air tight version of the same story with the same tragic end, the main difference being that the shooting took place before an audience of cellphone cameras leaving no wiggle room for conjecture as to what happened between two men in the dark. But also, and more to the point, the “based on real events” docudrama eloquently tapped into the plight of a young black man struggling to succeed in a society reticent to give him a fair shake based on the color of his skin.
To underscore that, and for anyone who’s of the mindset that we’re beyond Civil Rights and Affirmative Action and that opportunity is out there for all to take on equal terms, sit through “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and see if you still feel that way. Perhaps the best way to describe “The Butler” is as ‘a short painful history of the black man in America.’ The film centers on one man, who for the most part, grew up a slave in the early part of the 1900s and went on to wait upon eight Presidents as a staff server in the White House.
True, slavery was abolished, by Lincoln and immediately after his death, in the mid-1800s; but on the cotton plantation where Cecil Gaines was raised in Georgia, the emancipated laborers and their progeny were still treated as little more than disposable property. As a boy, Cecil witnesses his mother pulled from the field and hauled into a shed for a brief brutal interlude with a scowl faced plantation owner, and when Cecil’s father says something about it in the aftermath, he’s given a bullet to the head for protesting the rape of his wife.
There are several such atrocities that percolate throughout “The Butler,” even after Cecil (Forest Whitaker) has relocated his family up north and begun his tenure under Eisenhower (Robin Williams). And as much of an opportunity as working in the White House would seem, Cecil has a stormy house to contend with. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey acting for the first time in over a decade) is an alcoholic and carries on an inappropriate relationship with the smooth soothsayer next door (Terrance Howard), and his eldest son, Lucas (David Oyelowo) disagrees with his dad’s ‘don’t rock the boat’ stance and becomes an outspoken political activist. During the Civil Rights preamble he’s arrested repeatedly for riding on the ‘Freedom Bus’ and gets into a tangle with the Klan, and later, syncs up with the Black Panthers.
“The Butler” effortlessly sails through time, chronicling the evolution of the country and Cecil’s family. Under each new administration there are junctures where Cecil gets his one magic moment with the President, including Kennedy (James Marsden getting a passing grade on the accent) who asks him about his son and his activities. The conversation, as the film has it, goes on to have some small effect in Kennedy’s push for Civil Rights. Now if you’re rolling your eyes a little at this, you’d be somewhat right, as Cecil Gaines is a fictitious representation of Eugene Allen, who really did serve eight presidents. Still, for all its contrivances “The Butler” presents an interesting and compelling conveyance of American history through eyes of one man, in a setting where every social movement has a profound impact. It’s purposefully staged (perhaps too much so) with Cecil on the inside and Lucas, the rebellious yell, on the counter culture fringe.
The direction by Daniels’s and Danny Strong’s script (based on a Washington Post article by former Boston Globe scribe, Wil Haygood) often comes heavy handed and maudlin, but what they’re attempting — to compact so much into so little — is buoyed and bound by Winfrey and Whitaker. The two work superb together, as people drawn to each other yet pulled apart (over the years) by politics, work, addiction and ideals. The home is where the heart is, and Daniels and Strong get it. The wide-ranging cast includes Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravetz, Mariah Carey, John Cusack as Nixon and Jane Fonda killing it as Nancy Reagan.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies