Wednesday, January 15, 2014
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2013)
From humble origins as a sharecropper’s son, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes a White House butler for numerous U.S. Presidents beginning with Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) around the time he sent troops to enforce the desegregation of public schools. So begins director Lee Daniels’ entertaining and unruly odyssey of civil rights and race relations in America. Danny Strong’s shrewd, episodic script (based on Wil Haygood’s article about the life of Eugene Allen) drops in on major moments in history but shows them primarily from Cecil’s observations in the workplace and his personal clashes at home. As the Kennedy (James Marsden) and Johnson (Liev Schreiber) administrations grapple with racial violence in the South, Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) worry about activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) and his involvement with the Freedom Riders. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the Vietnam War’s escalation by the Nixon (John Cusack) administration, the close knit Gaines family begins to fray. Louis flirts with the Black Panthers, and youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) heads overseas to fight for his country. Cecil also struggles for equal pay for the black White House staff, which includes Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), with a quiet, persistent campaign. The Reagan (Alan Rickman) administration finally agrees to the pay increase, but its refusal to denounce apartheid sows seeds of concern in the butler. The First Lady (Jane Fonda) invites the Gaines to attend a state dinner as guests, but it is readily apparent to them that their presence is more for show than a meaningful gesture. And shortly thereafter Cecil retires. With its unstable mix of domestic drama, history lesson, and self-conscious stunt casting, the film shouldn’t work. Yet it does, due in large part to rich, committed performances by the remarkable Whitaker and the surprising Winfrey. By limiting their story to snapshots of turbulent times viewed both up close and from afar, Daniels and Strong show us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and the distance that remains.