MEEK AT THE MOVIES : THE BUTLER ( 3 stars )

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^ 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

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : FRUITVALE STATION ( 3 stars )

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^ Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station”

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With the George Zimmerman trial and cries of justice for Trayvon fresh in our minds, “Fruitvale Station” could not come at a more appropriate time. It won’t ease the current emotional swell, but it will help further the conversation.

At 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 2009, Oscar Grant, a twenty two year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a transit cop as he lay face down and partially restrained on the platform of the subway stop of the title; a tragic end to a buoyant and hopeful evening as Grant and his friends tried to make their way back to Oakland from a sojourn across the Bay to see the fireworks.

Much of the inexplicable act was caught on cellphone video. The cop later said he meant to draw his Taser and was sentenced for manslaughter, but that’s not what drives this movie. The shooting may be what ultimately defines it; still, Ryan Coogler’s explorative lens is more concerned with the odyssey of a young man struggling to go right in a world stacked against him—a world that he had a hand in skewing, and yes, it’s about race too.
Coogler begins with some of that fateful cellphone video. Then he fades out and rewinds to earlier in the day, following the events that lead up to the tragic moment, in the process absorbing the essence of the person Oscar Grant. “Fruitvale,” while it uses a smattering of real footage, isn’t a documentary per se but a dramatic recreation. Smart casting employs Michael B. Jordan to breathe soul into the memory of Oscar with Academy Award nominee Octavia Spencer as the loving, but stern mother.

Jordan, whom you might recognize from TV’s “The Wire,” has a long sad face with sleepy kind eyes; a bit like our old Celtic hero, Paul Pierce. For most of the film the camera hangs tight on that mug as Oscar drives around in his car or lingers in his kitchen, wondering, contemplating, torn and wanting to do the right thing. What confronts Oscar is his past — also his present situation. He’s just surrendered his run-around girlfriend and committed to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a young daughter; but then there’s the revelation that Oscar’s somewhat recently out of jail and he’s just lost his job as a butcher for being tardy too often. He desires to succeed in a straight up fashion and doesn’t want to go back to dealing dope, but how to make ends meet? It doesn’t help either that he keeps Sophina and his mother in the dark about his recently changed employment status.

“Fruitvale” bears the tag of “based on true events,” but Coogler, who was a USC film student at the time the project began (Forest Whitaker is one of the producers) and is approximately the same age as Grant and Black as well, never takes liberties with the license afforded him. If there’s any heavy-handedness it’s the rather contrived Black and White interaction : for example, the white-bread blonde who’s initially apprehensive when Oscar approaches her in a hoodie in a supermarket offering her tips on “fish fry” (she later happens to be on the train that night when the altercation goes down that triggers the unnecessary shooting). There’s the racist inmate who, during visiting hours between Oscar and his mother, drops a few F-bomb and N-word couplings and worse—moments that feel forced and unnatural, though they ultimately help fill the bigger canvas.

The true power of “Fruitvale” permeated through its quiet, reflective moments, as introspective players grapple with their own failures and with the outside influences that have negatively impacted their lives. John Singleton applied the same nuanced approach to “Boyz n the Hood.” Not bad company (and a fellow Trojan as well). The concluding frames of “Fruitvale,” as Oscar’s family and friends cling to slim hope, wrench the conscience. Loss of life is universal, no matter what color you are. Coogler knows this and articulates the moment with profound affect.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies