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Don't get angry about director Lee Daniels having the gall to call this movie Lee Daniels' The Butler, because the title got that way for another reason. Warners threatened legal action because they own a movie of that title made in 1916... The story sounds credible only because we know how Hollywood lawyers operate. Reflecting a lengthy struggle to be made, The Butler lists literally dozens of producers, executive producers and associate producers. But it features a huge cast top-lined by Forest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey, guaranteeing built-in audience appeal.
The Butler begins on a Georgia farm in 1925, where young Cecil Gaines is made a house servant after the owner murders his father with impunity. Realizing that eventually he'll be killed too, Cecil runs away. He's given a job in a hotel when an employee (Clarence Williams III) takes pity on him. From there he moves to an even better hotel job in Washington D.C., where his skill at dodging politics while waiting tables earns him a position as a butler at the White House. Cecil's wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is proud that her husband is such a good provider. Their boys' future seems secure, but Cecil still acts as if everything could fall apart at any time. As the personal servant of Presidents Eisenhower through Reagan, he witnesses a lot of history. Aware of the coming violence in the racially torn South, Cecil is shocked when his son Louis (David Oyelowo) announces his activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Louis becomes a Freedom Rider, taking buses into the South to defy the Ku Klux Klan.
An entertaining, well acted and rather didactic liberal message movie, The Butler is 'based on a true story'. That translates roughly to 'based on a real man but that's it.' Working from an article by Will Haygood, actor-screenwriter Danny Strong burdens the real life of White House butler Cecil Gaines with a fabricated personal history. Cecil Gaines sees his own mother raped and his father murdered, and suffers when his son Louis becomes politically active in the most dangerous years of the Civil Rights movement. Neither of these things happened, but The Butler's mission is to express the full depth of the Black Experience in the 20th century.
The movie can be contrasted to Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, a reactionary myth that revises several decades of history through the adventures of an inoffensive simpleton. At least The Butler doesn't hatefully misrepresent the anti-War movement, counsel complacency or deliver the brain-dead message that we should all just be mellow because "stuff happens." Cecil Gaines' experience is exaggerated, but it testifies faithfully to the reality of racism that still cripples this country.
The Butler cannot be faulted for its acting. Whitaker is inspiring as the endlessly patient, forever reserved Cecil, and Oprah Winfrey convinces as a woman whose emotional well-being is tied to the security of her children. Gloria Gaines becomes an alcoholic for a number of years, and cheats on her husband, yet stays true to him over the long haul. Actors Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. provide light sketches as Cecil's relatives and co-workers, and carry some of the comic relief. In a nice departure from The Cosby Show, this 'square' black family has its own tensions and weaknesses. Viewers complaining that, "everything in the film is about race" are absolutely right, because for black people the issue is never distant. The Gaines family' doesn't take its foothold in the middle class for granted, because racism is always there to give them grief. Cecil repeatedly asks for equal pay and advancement rights in the White House, and is turned down every time.
The personal story dominates, especially the relationship of Cecil and his son Louis, who bravely risks his life for the Civil Rights cause. Louis later joins the Black Panthers and has a heck of a clash with his father. This causes a break that only time will heal -- for years Gloria and Cecil must do without either of their sons. David Oyelowo is particularly good as Louis, and this aspect of the show holds up extremely well.
The much talked-about historical scenes in The White House are at best awkward, but I'm not sure there's a better way to make them work. Cecil is a fly on the wall during seemingly every major historical crisis between 1957 and 1985. These are presented as little throwaway speeches (aided by on-screen dates) that show various Presidents dealing with momentous problems. The "insights" into Presidential decision-making are simplistic in the extreme. Civil Rights is always at the top of the agenda. Eisenhower feels forced into sending in troops only because of the asinine behavior of local Southern rednecks. JFK declares that he and Bobby had a change of heart about black people, whereupon it is inferred that he was assassinated for supporting integration. LBJ sits on a toilet while barking out instructions, and rubs the ears of his beagles. Nixon maneuvers to make it look like he's supporting black businessmen, while ordering the FBI to annihilate the Black Panthers. Ford and Carter are skipped entirely. The Reagans seem the strangest of all. First Lady Nancy makes a show of inviting Cecil as a guest to a White House dinner, and President Reagan finally grants the black White House staff salary parity. Yet Reagan stubbornly refuses to go on record against Apartheid in South Africa. The movie isn't interested in finding out why.
All of these moments are brief and sketchy. That they deal with obvious attributes of each president is a good thing, because the actors chosen to play them miss by a mile. Robin Williams doing Eisenhower is just weird. I saw him and thought, "That's Harry Truman, right?" John Cusack goes on record as the worst Richard Nixon imitation in films, with a preposterous Pinocchio nose pasted over his own. James Marsden's John Kennedy is actually not bad, but they don't even give him the hair. One would think that detail should have been easy. The writers work in references to JFK's bad back and his philandering. Oddly, Minka Kelly's Jackie Kennedy is spot on. The scenes of her crying in a bloodstained dress are quite touching.
But then we get Liev Schreiber's LBJ, who seems neither Texan, nor presidential, nor sufficiently imposing -- Johnson may have looked funny in stills but he was a powerful presence. Alan Rickman doesn't capture the winning charm of Ronald Reagan, who governed like a movie star emcee greeting fans. But this Reagan is given a moment or two of quasi-senility, a nice touch. Jane Fonda's Nancy Reagan is only in a few brief shots. Again, the real Nancy's conversation with Cecil Gaines wouldn't be quite as open-faced sincere as Fonda makes it -- we almost think that the invitation was at Nancy's personal pleasure, when Cecil later states that it's just a politically correct gesture.
On the other hand, none of the Presidents, and no specific historical point are misrepresented in any way. And the movie doesn't claim that Cecil Gaines influenced anything in the White House. When Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) appears, he is handled in a similarly light fashion: he tells Louis that his father being a butler is not a bad thing, because by living with whites, domestic servants show their race in a good light. I doubt that Cecil himself would agree with that, remembering his own experience. His murdering employers in Georgia may have lived with blacks for 150 years.
Even if a lot of The Butler seems superficial, it must be remembered that it wasn't necessarily meant to be seen by people like myself, with personal memories of this history: I saw President Eisenhower when his plane stopped at Hickam Field in 1959 or so. For most of the audience these events need explanation, which The Butler does well. There are surely plenty of black parents trying to explain the past to their children, without going immediately to bleak documentaries about brutalized marchers and slain leaders. (The best show to see for the harsh facts on the Civil Rights years, BTW, is probably King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis).
The Weinsteins and Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Lee Daniels' The Butler is the expected flawless transfer of a movie that received plenty of media attention last summer. The extras include some deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, an okay short piece on the real Freedom Riders, a music video by Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz and a Gag Reel. Information and codes for a Digital HD version are included as well. A version of the disc without the HD linkup is available for $5.00 less.
I was not expecting much from The Butler and was pleasantly surprised to find it so entertaining. The rich characterizations made the Gaines family seem similar to any other American family, without idealizing them or exaggerating their role. The movie makes its points without waving the flag of outrage -- it's clearly a product of the Obama years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray +HD version rates:
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