Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] (directed by Lee Daniels, screenplay by Danny Strong) is a historical drama about the 1950s-1980s Civil Rights Era in the United States inspired by the real life of Eugene Allen an African American butler who served eight presidents in the White House from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan and who was the subject of an article by Washington Post journalist Wil Haygood [IMDb] in the heady days immediately following the election of Barrack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.

I do characterize the film as a historical drama, IMHO far more like Doctor Zhivago [1965] / A Man for All Seasons [1966] than Forrest Gump [1995] to which the film has been at times been somewhat unfortunately compared, because while on one hand it is clear Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] was inspired by Wil Haygood [IMDb] article and subsequent book about Eugene Allen even the name of the central character in the film was changed from Eugene Allen to Cecil Gaines (played as an 8 year old by Michael Rainey Jr, as a 15 year old by Aml Ameen and as an adult by Forest Whitaker).  Further, entire characters in the film, like Cecil's and his wife Gloria's (played by Oprah Winfrey) eldest son Louis (played by David Oyelowo), were largely invented for the purposes of the story.

On the other hand, I do believe that the story is legit as a serious historical drama, with a clear historical sweep and a serious message.  No one would seriously dismiss Doctor Zhivago [1965] as a work of serious historical drama even if there was no "historical Dr. Zhivago" (or "Strelnikov," "Komarovsky", "Lara", "Tonya" and so forth ...).  Further, the character of Cecil's fictionalized, largely invented eldest-son Lewis serves a similar story-telling purpose as Saint Thomas Moore's fictionalized, largely invented "son in law" in A Man for All Seasons [1966].   In both films, these characters provide a contrast to the path chosen by their respective story's central character.  In any case, the current film is intended to be a more serious one than the effervescent "life is a box of chocolates" Forrest Gump [1995]Lee Daniels' The Butler [2013] is a film about the struggle against heavy odds of an entire people personified in the life/family of Cecil Gaines.

Thus the film begins with Cecil as an 8 year old, living on a cotton plantation in the Macon County, Georgia in the Jim Crow South (the actual Eugene Allen grew-up in Southern Virginia ... still in the Jim Crow South, but not Macon County, GA).  After Cecil's father was shot and his mother raped by the privileged, white A-hole son of the plantation owner, the white Matron of the plantation (played by Vanessa Redgrave) takes the 8-year old orphaned Cecil "into the house" and promises to train him as a "House N...".  This is how Cecil gets his initial training and it serves him after he flees from the plantation at 15 and makes his way all the way up to Washington D.C. at the edge of the Old South as an adult ... Working as a waiter at a Washington D.C. establishment in the early 1950s, he gets noticed by someone working on the staff at the White House and gets offered a job among the largely (arguably all black) serving staff there.

Working then at the White House from the time of Dwight D. Eisenhower [IMDb] played in the film by Robin Williams) through the administrations of John F. Kennedy [IMDb] (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon Johnson [IMDb] (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon [IMDb] (played by John Cusack) to that of Ronald Reagan [IMDb] (played by Alan Rickman), Cecil is shown quietly doing his job of serving as part of the White House staff, even as momentous events often directly touching African American civil rights take place around him, like the implementation of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision during the Eisenhower Administration, the beginnings of the Sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement during the Kennedy Administration and continuing during the Johnson Administration (While Cecil quietly does his job as a servant at the White House, his son Louis is portrayed as participating in many of these protests) to the brief Black Panther Era (following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr [IMDb] (played in the film by Nelsan Ellis) and Robert F. Kennedy [IMDb]) during the Nixon Administration, to the protests in the U.S. against Apartheid in South Africa during the Reagan Administration to finally the election of President Obama.

Across this 50 year sweep of history, the film devotes about 1/2 its time portraying Cecil quietly at work at the White House and 1/2 the time portraying him at home dealing with various often timely/poignant "family issues" in his own house.

All in all, the film makes for a nice well structured story.  This film isn't a biopic.  However it makes for a quite good to excellent (mainstream) Zhivago-esque historical drama.  

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