Sunday, September 01, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Lee Daniels' The Butler

The film  Lee Daniels' The Butler (formerly known as The Butler) has been getting a lot of attention lately because it stars the Queen of all Media, Oprah Winfrey in a very dramatic role along with Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and a huge cast of well-known actors portraying well-known political figures. The cast includes Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Alan Rickman (President Reagan), John Cusack (President Nixon), Robin Williams (President Eisenhower), James Marsden (President Kennedy), Liev Schrieber (President Johnson) and whole lot of black actors. Mariah Carey (somewhat controversially appears as a field negro who is also the Whitaker character's mother), Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette from True Blood plays Martin Luther King, Jr.) Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terence Howard are all also in the movie.

Daniels is the first openly gay and Black man ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Directing for 2009's Precious (which won 2 Oscars, for Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) and so his movies are bound to get more attention now.

The movie is based on (or inspired by) a real story that is quite extraordinary. The story in question is the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations. In Danny Strong's screenplay he is called "Cecil Gaines" and played by Whitaker, while Oprah plays his boozy, adulterous wife Gloria. He has two sons Louis (played by David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played by Elijah Kelley) and the film's main action is the depiction of important American historical events starting in about 1960 and their impact on the Gaines family.

The film depicts a gripping version of important events in civil rights history: the lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom riders, the national guard enforcing school desegregation orders, Black Panther movement, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy, among others. The film is enthralling because it shows you these well-known events from the perspective of the ultimate insider by following Cecil as he works inside the White House serving the Presidents who were involved at the time.

One key thread in the film is the strategic debate between the people who felt it was necessary to but their bodies on the line to force change (represented by Cecil's son Louis) and those who wanted change but who did not feel like their individual efforts would be enough to cause the change to happen (as represented by Cecil). The film shows Cecil opposing Louis' desire to get involved in the civil rights movement as well as Louis' evolution from non-violent protester in college to Black Power militant to permanent agitator against the status quo and eventual establishment politician (as an elected Congressperson). The other  main thread in the film is the relationship between Gloria and Cecil. Cecil works very long hours in the White House and at first Gloria is proud that he is working for the First Family but eventually she becomes jealous and bitter because she believes that he cares more about that family than his own. She also drinks a fair amount and as the kids grow up and leave the house the relationship between Cecil and Gloria becomes more central to the story.

Overall, I enjoyed Lee Daniels' The Butler quite a lot and thus understand why it has become a box-office hit, especially with the big 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington happening this week.

TitleLee Daniels' The Butler.
Director: Lee Daniels.
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
Release Date: August 16, 2013.
Viewing Date: August 20, 2013.

Writing: B.
Acting: A.
Visuals: A-.
Impact: A+.

Overall Grade: A-/B+ (3.50/4.0).

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