August 21, 2013 -- I finally got around to seeing “The Butler” yesterday at one of the local theaters (it was cheap popcorn day). Yes the actual, terribly narcissistic title is “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” but that title, the result of a dispute between movie studios, is so ridiculous and awkward, I'm not going to use it. Besides the awkward title, this film will also be known for the strangest casting imaginable for the series of U.S. presidents and other famous folk in the film. Can you imagine John Cusack playing Richard Nixon, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan? At least it didn't have Eddie Murphy playing Barack Obama.
Despite the strange cast and stranger movie title, this is a good film. In all fairness, the name of the movie probably makes more sense than “Adam Sandler's Grown Ups.” This is a movie about the struggle for civil rights and voting rights over many years in America. This has been the subject of many films, but most of those have not been so successful in personalizing the story. The film is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who worked for three decades in the White House in a variety of jobs, including butler and later, maitre d'.
In the movie, Allen (his character's name in the movie is Cecil Gaines) is played by Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker. The story starts when Gaines was a young boy on a Georgia cotton plantation. His mother is raped and his father murdered in cold blood before his eyes for standing up to the offending white man on the plantation. The matriarch of the plantation (played by Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on Gaines and trains him to be a servant in the plantation's mansion.
Gaines leaves the plantation and heads north where opportunities for employment are better. A man takes pity on Gaines and gives him a job in a hotel. He ends up in a posh hotel in Washington D.C., where he is noticed by a high ranking official and earns a job as a butler in the White House.
Gaines becomes a fixture in the White House, seeing six administrations come and go over 30 years from Eisenhower to Reagan. Over that time, he sees many changes in the nation, particularly in the area of civil rights. His son, Louis (David Oyelowo of “Lincoln”) is right in the thick of the action. He is a Freedom Rider, a political activist and an advisor to Martin Luther King, later, he becomes a Black Panther. Gaines doesn't approve of his son's dangerous activities and the two men don't speak to each other for years after a heated dispute.
Gaines' wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is unhappy at home because her husband's demanding work schedule keeps him away from home most of the time. She takes up with a sleazy neighbor, Howard (played by Terrence Howard of “Iron Man”). The friction between different members of the Gaines family plays a big part in the story.
The acting by Forest Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo and the others in this big cast is excellent. John Cusack wouldn't seem to be a good choice to play Nixon, but Cusack can do anything I guess. He was convincingly oily and manipulative as a vice president. Later, he was stressed and desperate as a president trying to survive the Watergate scandal. Clarence Williams III had a memorable scene with Whitaker early in the film, disciplining the younger man about using the word “nigger.” He is a force in this film. It's been a long time since he starred in TVs “The Mod Squad.”
This is a powerful film, and a good history lesson for people unfamiliar with the long struggle for civil rights and voting rights for black people in this country. We've come a long way since the 1940s and 1950s, but the problems of those dark times in American history haven't gone away. Supreme Court rulings and Republican legislators in the South and elsewhere are combining to suppress the black vote. The killing of Treyvon Martin, and many other blacks that go unpunished shows the justice system still favors those who are white, or rich, or both. This film rates a B.
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