Thursday, October 10, 2013

Movie Review - Lee Daniels' The Butler

Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker gives an amazing performance as Cecil Gaines, the character based on the real-life Eugene Allen, an African-American who worked as a servant in the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood profiled Allen in 2008, the year of the first African-American president, President Barack Obama's election and two years before Allen's death. Screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount and Game Change) adapted that profile and it was directed by the second African-American ever nominated for Best Director, Lee Daniels.

Oscar-nominee Oprah Winfrey also gives an amazing performance as Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife, former maid and now mother of two sons. Gloria is a tough, opinionated, fun-loving woman who perhaps has a drinking problem and every now and then has an affair with a man from the neighborhood named Howard, played by Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard.

Lee Daniels depicts an extended prologue of Cecil's life in 1926 as a 7-year-old son of a sharecropper in Macon, Georgia. There are brutally powerful moments in this prologue, but it's unnecessary. The only purpose seems to make people who didn't like Alex Pettyfer before like him even less. He plays a racist and a rapist, as well as a murderer, which he does all in the span of one minute.

Danny Strong perhaps constructed the screenplay to show Cecil getting his first job in a hotel and learning his eventual trade, which included bartending. Honestly, this stuff felt like padding. It merely delayed us from getting to Whitaker who just appears with his wife. I would have preferred seeing a bit of their courtship, something to help establish their relationship.

Strong also constructed the screenplay to follow Cecil president-by-president. Lee Daniels takes this opportunity to turn his movie into a parade of famous faces, starting with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower who followed President Truman in 1953. James Marsden plays John F. Kennedy. Liev Schreiber plays Lyndon B. Johnson. John Cusack plays Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman plays Ronald Reagan with Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan.

Strong skipped President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter whose administrations fell between Nixon and Reagan. Each of the five presidents he does depict played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, the only time we see those presidents are the brief moments that Cecil enters the Oval Office to serve them drinks or food, and he overhears them planning or reflecting on political matters.

Given that Cecil is a simple family man who doesn't believe in getting involved in such matters, he just wants to keep his head down and earn enough money to give his family a nice life. This limits the audience's experience of this situation. Cecil's experience of the Civil Rights Movement is no greater than he and Gloria watching on television like most others. Daniels has a lot of scenes of Cecil and Gloria doing just that, watching TV, making his movie for large chunks not very cinematic or exciting.

To rectify that, we follow along a parallel track of the life and experiences of Cecil's eldest son, Louis Gaines, played by David Oyelowo. Louis isn't like his father. Louis believes he should get involved. He doesn't want to keep his head down. He wants to push for change and push hard. This is when Strong's screenplay takes a page from Eric Roth's Forrest Gump (1994). Louis inexplicably becomes involved with many, crucial, Civil Rights Movement events, including being with the Freedom Riders during the Mother's Day 1961 bus fire in Alabama as well as being in the room with Martin Luther King Jr., played by Nelsan Ellis, the day before his 1968 assassination in Tennessee.

All this provides energy and thrust to the film and helps us to flesh out the history lesson. It also leads to possibly the most powerful and most effecting sequence Lee Daniels has ever committed to the silver screen. Louis is present for the famous Woolworth Sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. Louis and a group of black students from a nearby school would sit at the lunch counter, which refused to serve them food or drink, all day in protest. Daniels inter-cuts this scene with a scene of Cecil and a group of black butlers having to line up and serve people in the White House.

The contrast of the two scenarios perfectly conveys the conflict and dichotomy between Cecil and his son Louis, as well as the larger conflict within the country. While Cecil was serving food and drink to white people, Louis was being refused service from white people. Blacks who serve stand as blacks wanting to be served sit. It's a wondrous juxtaposition on Daniels' part, and through the performances of Whitaker and Oyelowo, we feel the pain that each black man experiences, the loud, physical pain for one and the quiet, emotional pain for the other. The moment could also be described as a generational divide, but it reads so magnificently on each of Whitaker and Oyelowo's faces.

Daniels also directs some moments that aren't as powerful cinematically as that sequence or as anything in his previous films like Shadowboxer (2005), Precious (2009) or even The Paperboy (2012). This movie might be his least flashy or least style-driven movie. Here, it's really more about the characters and honoring the history.

Yet, the movie has most of its scenes operate in a fashion of starting with awkward humor and then move into heavy drama. My favorite was the scene following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination when Louis brings his girlfriend Carol, played by Yaya Alafia, home to dinner with Cecil and Gloria as well as his younger brother Charlie. The humor comes from the tension between the opposing views of Cecil and Louis as well as Gloria not knowing what to make of Carol's strongly held, Black Panther sensibilities and Charlie making jokes about it. That tension is broken when Louis insults Sidney Poitier and Whitaker in a meta-commentary moment defends the Oscar-winner.

Winfrey earns Academy Award consideration in this scene, as her Gloria has to jump in between the two men and for the first time in the movie truly side with Cecil over Louis. Elijah Kelley who plays Charlie in that scene also stands out as obviously the comic relief. Kelley has great comedic timing and is supremely charming.

Other actors who perhaps only get one or two scenes but who really, noticeably shine include James Marsden whose sexiness, charisma and empathy are immediate the instant he steps in frame. Another is Jesse Williams who plays Reverend James Lawson, another famed civil rights activist. Lawson has to prepare Louis and Carol for the Woolworth Sit-in. The look in Williams' eyes, as he does so, is just so dazzling.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material and smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 12 mins.

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