Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Butler

For F*** Magazine


Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, David Banner
Genre: Biography, Drama
Run Time: 132 mins
Opens: 24 October 2013
Rating: NC-16 (Some Coarse Language)

Through literature, comic books, film and television, we’ve become acquainted with the likes of Alfred Pennyworth from the Batman stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s creation Jeeves, Iron Man’s butler and later artificially intelligent assistant Jarvis, The Addams Family’s butler Lurch and Green Hornet’s chauffer-sidekick Kato. As butlers, valets and the like, these characters are privy to the most intimate details of their employer’s lives and are granted full access to the houses of prestige in which they live and work. In The Butler, audiences are introduced to Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a character based on the real-life figure Eugene Allen, who was butler to eight United States presidents over 34 years.

Cecil grew up on a cotton plantation where his parents (Carey and Banner) were often brutally mistreated by the farm’s owner Thomas Westfall (Pettyfer). A teenaged Cecil escaped to start anew, breaking into a pastry shop, desperate for food and shelter. He is taken in by Maynard (Williams III), a master servant who shows Cecil the ropes. Eventually, his efforts are recognized and Cecil is employed as member of the White House butler staff. Cecil juggles his home life with wife Gloria (Winfrey), sons Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Kelley) with his important occupation, keeping order in the corridors of power. He fosters a working relationship with his colleagues Carter (Gooding, Jr.), James (Kravitz) and his boss Freddie (Domingo) while rubbing shoulders with those who have taken on the position of leader of the free world. At the same time, the African-American Civil Rights Movement unfolds around Cecil, many of his loved ones right in the thick of it.

The Butler is a film that undeniably stems from a noble desire to put a historically and culturally important story up on the big screen, something that required the effort of a whopping 41 producers and executive producers. Depicting this swathe of American history through the eyes of a butler allows the audience an “in”, a point of view through which all this is made accessible. The film is almost overwhelmingly earnest and heartfelt, but at times, this is to its detriment.

Much has been made of the historical inaccuracies The Butler packs in. “Cecil Gaines” is a fictionalization of Eugene Allen: the fate of Cecil’s parents is a gross exaggeration and did not befall Eugene’s parents, Eugene didn’t get his start in the butler biz by breaking and entering, Eugene only had one son, not two, and that son was not as entrenched in radical activism as Louis Gaines was in the story, Ronald Reagan’s own son has come forward to oppose the depiction of the president’s attitudes towards race in the story, the list does go on. There are times when these embellishments feel contrived and blatant; the “drama dial” turned up to 11 and resulting in histrionics. The film comes off as something of a CliffsNotes version of the Civil Rights Movement, touching on the milestones and turning points and fitting them into the story with varying degrees of success.

The film boasts a truly impressive roster of stars, led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. He lends a down-to-earth, laconic charm to Cecil and easily embodies the character’s solid work ethic and makes it very believable that the butler would be a well-liked personality in the White House. Oprah Winfrey resists the urge to turn the film into a vanity project as Cecil’s chain-smoking, sometimes-brusque but ultimately well-meaning wife. The duo of Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the staffers Cecil spends the most time with on the job and who soon become personal friends of his, are excellent as friendly, comforting faces in the midst of the volatility and uncertainty depicted.

The casting of the presidents is a double-edged sword: on one hand, there’s the novelty factor and on the other, it really can pull one out of the movie and there will be viewers fighting with every fibre of their being not to yell “President Cyclops! President Snape! President Sabretooth!” at the screen. Liev Schreiber is entertaining as Lyndon B. Johnson, bringing some of his eccentricities (getting his daily security briefing while on the loo, for one) to the screen. James Marsden is a passable JFK, but John Cusack makes for a terrible Nixon. Alan Rickman is caked under unconvincing prosthetics to play Ronald Reagan, and the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan has ruffled some feathers. David Oyelowo is fiery as Cecil’s older son who heeds the clarion call of activism, becoming a “freedom rider” and eventually a member of the Black Panthers. The scene in which the freedom bus is ambushed by Klansmen is genuinely suspenseful.

In spite of all its shortcomings, the film comes together as a surprisingly cohesive whole and does manage to be genuinely moving and compelling at times. This is a story of great import, but the heavy-handedness and melodrama do weigh it down and threaten to drown out and not enhance its message. Danny Strong’s screenplay is competently written, but does feel burdened by the socio-political message worked into the fabric of the film. Does The Butler smack of Oprah Winfrey-backed Oscar bait? If you’re feeling cynical, certainly. But there is a significance and gravity to the film that demands respect, and the story it endeavours to tell is worth our time.

SUMMARY: Cecil Gaines’ odyssey is ungainly at times and the film does have its moments of over-embellished bombast, but there are inspirational and engaging aspects to The Butler that lift it above that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


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