Friday, August 16, 2013

Passing Witness: Lee Daniels' The Butler

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (which from here on out, shall merely be called The Butler because seriously Warner Bros. how petty can you be?) is one of those movies you appreciate, and are entertained by, but just wish was a little bit better.

The Butler is based, very loosely, on the true story of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked at the White House for several decades. In the film he's Cecil Gaines. Working on a cotton plantation in Georgia, he witnesses the rape of his mother, and the murder of his father. The plantation matriarch, (Vanessa Redgrave), decides to extend some kindness his way, and moves him into the home, training him to be a "house nigger." (And yes, the irony that granting anyone the status of house nigger could be considered a kindness is not lost in the film.)

Eventually he takes his experience as a domestic away from the plantation, and into a series of hotels, eventually landing a spot in Washington D.C. It's here that he's noticed by the head of the White House's serving staff, and is hired on as a butler. (And it's from this point on that he's played by Forest Whitaker, in a very, very subdued performance.)

At times, the movie comes close to becoming an African-American Forrest Gump, as Cecil serves a series of presidents, from Truman to Reagan, all played by very recognizable actors. Meanwhile, his eldest son, Louis, (David Oyelowo), resents his father's adherence to the status quo, rebels, and joins the civil rights movement in almost all of its incarnations, from lunch counter sit-ins, to freedom buses, to Martin Luther King Jr. marches, to the Black Panthers.

Director Daniels doesn't shy away from the brutal history of the civil rights movement, although having Louis go through so much of its horrors--without ever losing his faith or conviction--makes him come across, at times, as more of a passing witness than fierce advocate.

Which is kind of the problem with this sort of movie as a whole. Because of its epic nature, spanning many, many years, not a lot of time can be spent during any one historic era, or on one historic event. Elections; losses; assignations; incarcerations; retribution. It's all there, but it feels more like flipping through a history book than it does actually absorbing one family's true experience in that history.

Still, there's a certain amount of entertainment to be had in seeing things like John Cusack as Richard Nixon, sweating as always, or Liev Schreiber as LBJ, barking orders from the toilet. (Best is probably Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Don't think there isn't some commentary in THAT bit of casting.)

Of course, you can't discuss the movie without discussing Oprah Winfrey, as her bigger-than-life persona is helping to fuel the film's publicity, and at times, almost threatens to derail the movie. She play's Cecil's hard-drinking, not always faithful wife, Gloria.

She's good. But she's Oprah Winfrey. Watching her act is almost as hard, at this point in her life, as it would be watching the Queen of England take on a gritty role in a kitchen sink drama. You just can't ever really get past the fact that that's Oprah up there, in a series of changing hairdos and increasingly unfortunate wardrobe changes. (Though seeing her dance around in a Lurex disco jumpsuit is quite possibly worth the price of admission.)

The film ends with the first election of Barack Obama, something one could argue happened in large part because of Oprah Winfrey. And I walked away from the movie not thinking so much about it, as I was thinking how great it would have been to see Oprah actually sit down and talk to that real butler during that very momentousness year, and how an interview like that might have been a much better historical record than The Butler.

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