The Butler (***1/2) – Broad strokes don’t work as well as fine detail

the-butler-poster

The Butler – 2013

Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Adriane Lenox, Yaya DaCosta, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Clarence Williams III, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo, Robin Williams, James DuMont, Robert Aberdeen, James Mardsen, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber. John Cusack, Alex Manette, Colin Walker, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Stephen Rider, Nelsan Ellis, Jesse Williams, Danny Strong
Screenplay by Danny Strong based on the book A Butler Well Served by this Election by Wil Haygood

There are many things to like about Lee Steven’s take on history in The Butler.  Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are perfectly cast as a trio of wait staff who show that diversity is possible even with people of seemingly common heritage.  There are some brief appearances by a bevy of actors and actresses playing out fantasy versions of political heavyweights.  The best thing about the film, though, is the part that I was most pensive about.  As Gloria Gaines, Oprah Winfrey gives the kind of performance that reminds viewers why she won an Oscar so many years ago for The Color Purple.

The feeling that permeates while watching this opus of U.S. historical race flashpoints is a sense of dizziness.  It moves so quickly and hits so many points, it is hard to get a sense of completion.  To the extent that we get to see events unfold in the life of Cecil Gaines (a loose approximation of Eugene Allen) and how he reacts to them, it works as a show of motivation.  If the events of his life were true, one could forgive a bit of skewing of historical fact for what would seem the perspective of one person.

They could not even do that, though.  Most of what we see happening to Cecil in the film is not true.  As a result, it feels contrived and manipulative, taking from its power.  This is a shame.  There is a really strong source material in the Haygood’s story and it could have been used to a powerful effect without dressing it up.  Events like the rape of his mother, the subsequent murder of his father, having two sons, one a Black Panther style demonstrator and the other a casualty of Vietnam just never happened.  It’s almost like they created a checklist of a saint and ran through it, just for dramatic purposes.

For this reason, Oprah’s incredible performance as the loving but troubled wife, while remarkable, feels suspect.  She expresses such a range of genuine feelings in a short time span, it’s impossible not to be moved by her character.  Gloria, as presented by Winfrey, is a loving and non judgmental as a mother to their kids, and while she understands her husband’s issues with their oldest, it doesn’t make it easier to take when coupled with Cecil’s long hours.  Her essential scene takes place in a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? type situation when she shows the depth and wisdom of her love.  

The Presidential supporting cast is varied.  Robin Williams portrays Eisenhower not as the decisive General who won WWII, but more like a victim of the overwhelming Civil Rights issues of the day.  Mardsen as Kennedy is an inspired choice, especially when they show that he was a handsome, if somewhat physically broken young man who still had some room for growth politically.  Schreiber as Johnson would have been marvelous if there had been more screen time.  Cusack’s Nixon does a great job showing the most paranoid aspect of his personality, while ignoring much of the rest.  Yes, we know he suffered from low self esteem, but there was a marvelous statesman in there as well.  

By the time we get to Reagan, we get some pleasant truth and the film’s biggest departure from reality.  Rickman is a good choice to show his softer side.  The best one can say about Fonda playing Nancy is that it is an ironic choice that is too brief to make a big impression.  The dinner as guest of honor is a wonderful event, but as for the Apartheid nonsense, lets just leave with this: Eugene and his wife only kept one photograph of a President and his wife in their living room, and it wasn’t a Democrat.

The story takes a sweet turn after the retirement, and no matter the politics, the feelings it engenders are palpable.  The film is expertly made, despite the liberties it takes.  It takes broad strokes and tries to call it history.  If they had concentrated more on character study like that of Cecil and Gloria and less on inaccurate attempts at historically coverage of all bases, it might have amounted to something as special as its subject.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

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