Movies: A subtle serve of history in The Butler ............
LEE Daniels’ The Butler is a star-filled, if heavy-handed, labour of love that has its heart in the right place and scores dramatically often enough to recommend it.
Forest Whitaker is superlative as a White House butler who serves under seven presidents. There are some really powerful moments depicting the civil rights struggle, a fairly rare subject for American movies these days.
Whitaker is wonderfully subtle in suggesting the inner turmoil of a character whose job mandates subservience.
Although director Lee Daniels dials things down a bit here, subtlety is not what he does.
Also of concern are the contrivances that abound in Danny Strong’s screenplay, which turns a real-life White House butler named Eugene Allen into the fictional composite Cecil Gaines, whose family is repeatedly thrust into key historical moments a la Forrest Gump.
The Butler does not begin too promisingly. Waiting for an audience with President Obama (who is not depicted), the elderly Cecil flashes back to a 1926 Georgia cotton farm, where we see his father shot dead by the owner’s son who has taken liberties with his mother (Mariah Carey, who leads a parade of celebrity cameos).
The more compassionate owner (Vanessa Redgrave) selects Cecil for training as a house servant. Cecil becomes so skilled at unobtrusively serving white folk that, as an adult, his boss at a Virginia hotel (Clarence Williams III) recommends him for an important plum in Washington.
Colman Domingo is very good as the maitre d’ supervising the all-black domestic staff, who lays down strict rules for Cecil: ‘‘There is no room for politics in the White House’’ and ‘‘You hear nothing, you see nothing.’’
What we see, though, is a parade of actors made up to play presidents beginning with Robin Williams, whose Eisenhower is around just long enough for Cecil to express amazement that Ike has ordered out troops to back up court-ordered school integration.
Much more time is devoted to deifying John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) and his widow Jackie, who returns from her husband’s Dallas assassination in November 1963 and shows off her blood-strained dress to the stunned Cecil, who then reads a bedtime story to soothe Caroline.
By this point, Cecil’s older son Louis (David Oyelowo) has chosen to embrace political activism as a member of the Freedom Riders, who risked (and sometime lost) their lives while confronting racism in the South.
The film, unfortunately, tends to reduce presidents to caricatures – Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber) talks about his landmark civil rights legislation while sitting on the toilet with Cecil standing dutifully at his side.
Though John Cusack makes an amusing Richard Nixon, his term is reduced to a drunk and paranoid Tricky Dick assuring the ubiquitous Cecil that he will ‘‘never’’ resign over Watergate.
The film’s dramatic thrust is the growing rift between Cecil and his son Louis, who is conveniently on hand in Memphis when Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.
After skipping over the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the film’s final stretch contains Jane Fonda’s appearance as first lady Nancy Reagan. It amounts to a glorified cameo runs for a few brief scenes that are highly sympathetic, as Nancy invites a stunned Cecil and his wife as guests to a state dinner.
Far less flattering is the depiction of her husband Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Though he worries to Cecil that he ‘‘may be on the wrong side of the race issue,’’ Reagan decides to veto congressional trade sanctions against the racist apartheid government of South Africa.
The disgusted Cecil decides to retire and join Louis outside the South African embassy for a protest that lands both of them in jail.
Oprah Winfrey gets second billing for relatively few scenes as Cecil’s long-suffering wife, who between worrying about Louis being killed or arrested and her husband’s long hours of work, starts hitting the bottle.
The wife passes away just before Obama’s election, which the film none-too-subtly couches as the second coming of JFK.
The Butler is a mixed bag that often tries way too hard to wring tears and shock from the audience. But when it comes to underserved subject matter like this, you have to give props, even for a flawed attempt like this. – LOU LUMENICK, The New York Post
The Butler opens today.
Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines and Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria in The Butler