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Film review: The Butler

Dec 4, 2013 Film & TV

The Butler

Directed by Lee Daniels

The Butler is the story of a man who rose from enslaved house-boy to white-gloved White House servant against the backdrop of America’s civil rights battle. It’s a powerfully moving film, because, you know, human rights, but also because it’s hugely manipulated to be so.

Many liberties are taken in the transformation of the modest true story of White House butler Eugene Allen into a silver-screen epic. In real life, Allen’s mother wasn’t raped, his father wasn’t shot dead by his mother’s rapist, and he had only one son. The fictional Cecil Gaines has two: one fights in Vietnam, the other is conveniently shoehorned into the civil rights movement’s pivotal historic moments, from lunch counter sit-ins to the Black Panthers to Martin Luther King Jr’s motel room the day he is shot. Also, Cecil’s mother is played by Mariah Carey, and his wife is Oprah.

If I’m being flippant, it’s because the film somewhat invites it, despite its powerful portrayal of racism. The measure of Cecil’s worth as a butler is in his ability to blend into the wallpaper, which makes him a hard character to invest in, even when played by the magnificent Forrest Whittaker.

A lot of the chatter about Lee Daniels’ film has been about the awesome line-up of actors playing various presidents of the United States: boozy John “Nixon” Cusack, thoughtful Robin “Eisenhower” Williams, Liev “Lyndon-on-the-loo” Schrieber, and a wickedly good Alan “Reagan” Rickman. Jane Fonda’s Nancy is also spot-on. They’re great, but they’re a tad cartoonish against the contrasts of Cecil’s earnest, “good Negro” indoors and the battle raging out in the streets.

So let’s talk about Oprah Gail Winfrey. The 59-year-old media mogul plays Cecil’s blowsy, drinkin’, cheatin’ wife, and she is fantastic. Hers is a 360-degree character, rounded and real, frustrated as she sees the civil rights movement march on while she’s expected to play the good wife at home, juggling the rigidity of her husband against the next-generation energy of her sons. Act more, O! You’re very, very good at it.


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