Movies: A sub­tle serve of his­tory in The But­ler ............

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - PLAYCONTENTS -

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

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