Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend

New Releases for the Week of August 16, 2013


Kick-Ass 2

KICK-ASS 2

(Universal) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

The exploits of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl have inspired a new generation of costumed vigilante heroes of varying competence to patrol the streets of the city. This proves intolerable for Red Mist, the turncoat hero whose father was killed by Kick-Ass; reborn in a new guise, he assembles his own team of costumed villains who hunt down the heroes one by one. Only the bravery of Kick-Ass and the blades of Hit Girl can stop the carnage.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Superhero

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and brief nudity)

The Butler

(Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams. The true story of an African-American White House employee – a butler if you will – who served for more than three decades and for seven presidents. These decades represent some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history when civil rights were topic A and relations between races in this country changed forever. These changes not only affected our country but caused a deep divide in the butler’s family as well.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and disturbing image, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)

Ghost Graduation

(Fox Searchlight) Raul Arevalo, Alexandra Jimenez, Andrea Duro, Jaime Olias. A high school teacher has Haley Joel Osment syndrome – he can see dead people. In his case, a group of teenagers at his high school who died in a 1986 fire. They are doomed to remain there unless they can pass their final course. The teacher of course volunteers – nobody ever said your students had to be among the living and quite frankly most of them aren’t anyway, right? Complications ensue when one of the dead and one of the living fall in love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Adventure

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and language)

Jobs

(Open Road) Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas. Steve Jobs was a revolutionary and his ideas changed the way we live. Under his guidance, Apple and Pixar revolutionized entertainment and technology and produced such devices as the personal computer, the iPhone, the digitally animated feature, the iPod and the iPad among other things. This is his story.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some drug content and brief strong language)

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara

(Ramesh Sippy) Akshay Kumar, Imran Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonali Bendre . A sequel to the popular Bollywood film Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, the action begins as a new criminal don runs the city of Mumbai. He has become a popular folk hero for his suave charismatic manner and womanizing. His best friend oversees the criminal side of his empire. However a rift grows between them when they both fall in love with the same starlet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Paranoia

(Relativity) Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, Amber Heard. An ambitious young engineer gets caught in a war between two rival CEOs who will stop at nothing to destroy each other. Forced into the world of corporate espionage, he soon discovers that not only everything that he’s worked for is at risk, so is his very life. In too deep to stop, he must figure out a way to survive and protect those he loves.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality, violence and language)