Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
Director: Lee Daniels (What was your first clue?)
Witnessing one's father being gunned down in cold blood because he stepped out of line in the white man's world in the pre-civil rights era will have a lasting effect on a child. . For Cecil Gaines, the central character in Lee Daniels' The Butler, it shaped his entire life. And while we could say that Mr. Gaines rose to the top of his profession as a butler at the White House--he was still walking on egg shells in another man's world. Don't express opinions. Especially about politics. Know your place and stay in it. Ironic, then, that Cecil would have a son who became active in the civil rights movement of the sixties, throwing his lot in with the freedom riders down south, and later joining the militant Black Panther party.
The Butler is a tale of two generations as different as black and white. ( And please don't make me insert "Lee Daniels" as a prefix every time I mention the name of this movie. Does Quentin Tarantino put his name in the title of his films? Let's just name another football stadium after its corporate sponsor and leave it at that.)
It's a good thing that the character of Cecil Gaines is a composite, loosely based (and blatantly inaccurate) on the life of Eugene Allen, the man who served eight presidents in the White House from 1952 to 1986. Because Mr. Gaines is not an admirable or likable individual throughout most of this film. It's not his Uncle Tom attitude. Given the era he came up in, we can allow him that. It's his outright hostility and barely concealed resentment toward his son, Louis, who represents everything Dylan was waxing nasally about in "The Times They Are a--Changin." The boy just seems to have a nose for trouble. Challenging authority and landing his ass in jail. Why ya tryin' to upset the apple cart? Riding in the back of the bus ain't so bad.
But times change, and people do too. And if you are like me, you'll be rooting for Cecil to come around as well.
I've felt that Forrest Whitaker was one of our finest actors since seeing him in The Last King of Scotland. He has solidified that opinion here. Oprah Winfrey, as his wife, does a credible job as a woman starved for attention--seeking it elsewhere because Cecil is up in the big house...er, I mean White House, doing his thing. And then we have all those cameos by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, Jane Fonda, and Liev Schreiber, representing the various presidents and/or their wives from Eisenhower to Reagan . Going strictly by appearances, some miss the mark, as Marsden doesn't look much like Kennedy. But Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda absolutely nail Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Especially Fonda, who has the first lady's mannerisms and walk down pat. I was expecting to hear "just say no" dribbling mindlessly from her lips at any moment. The irony of casting some of these Hollywood "pinkos" as the likes of Richard Nixon and Ron and Nancy Reagan is not lost on those of us who lived through the era.
And the era is the real star of The Butler. The turbulence of the civil rights struggle is dramatized, then complemented with actual footage of redneck cops beating up peaceful marchers...the vicious dogs...the high powered water hoses--it's all there to remind those too young to have witnessed it that yes, these things really happened in a place we called America. At times, however, the film slips into mawkish stereotypes, as when Louis and his girlfriend sit down to dinner with his parents. Louis never removes his Black Panther beret, and his gal sports an Afro that rises about two feet atop her head. It's all for dramatic, and rather humorous effect; but I tend to think that a real version of Louis, with everything he's been through, would have the sensitivity to remove his hat at the table.
We aren't really sure whose side the movie is on until the closing credits, which give credit where credit is due.
Nice review, Tim. Well-expressed and thoughtful. But if we had gone to see this flick together and you had called Oprah Winfrey's performance "credible," I would've beaten you over the head with my ticket stub! Credible? She was (blankety-blank-blank) brilliant. Mark my Oscar-predicting words, she's gonna win this year's gold statuette for Best Supporting Actress. Kudos to everyone involved in this movie. But special praise must be given to the editors. The cuts—from a posh White House dinner to a lunch counter sit-in where the protesters are being spat upon—speak visual volumes about that era in history.
As far as the various presidential cameos go, the one of Lyndon Johnson played extremely well by Liev Schreiber is about as unflattering as you can get. No doubt, an accurate portrayal. (I encourage those of you with HBO to catch this actor in "Ray Donovan.")
When the end credits rolled and I tried to stop weeping and sniffling, choking down more tears, the fellow I went to see THE BUTLER with made a comment I agree with. (See, Tim? I do agree with some opinions!) He felt it was slow in the beginning, a bit confusing at that party with the bickering neighbors. Yes, the drunk guy—played with missing front teeth by Terrence Howard—figured into the plot later on. But if I had anything to criticize about this fantastic film, it would be the subplot between him and Cecil Gaines' wife. I felt it was unnecessary.