August 27, 2013

MOVIES: Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)

A wildly uneven hodgepodge of a movie, with some performances and scenes that work extraordinarily well, and some that are total disasters.

The story, based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, is that of a butler -- here named Cecil Gaines, and played by Forest Whitaker -- who works in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years. There is a brief prologue, in which we see Cecil as a child, living in something not too far removed from slavery, taken from the field to the house by Southern matriarch Vanessa Redgrave (because apparently there were no elderly Southern actresses available that day), whose offer to teach Cecil to be "a house nigger" is, by 1912 standards, an act of kindness.

The movie splits its time between Cecil's work at the White House and his family life. The White House half of the movie is marred by a series of celebrity cameos as Presidents and First Ladies, most of which are so badly miscast -- Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ -- that they feel like an endless series of Saturday Night Live sketches. James Marsden at least makes a reasonably good attempt to get the voice right as JFK, which is more than most of the presidential actors do. (By far the best of these cameos is that of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.)

The central story of Cecil's home life is his estrangement from son Louis (David Oyelowo) over David's involvement in the civil rights movement. And by "involvement," I mean that Louis is the Forrest Gump of civil rights, present at every major event -- a Woolworth sit-in, the Freedom Rides, Selma, jail with MLK in Birmingham, Memphis for the MLK assassination, Oakland with the Black Panthers. (Somehow, he misses the March on Washington, but that's about it.)

As Cecil ages, Whitaker chooses to reflect that age by making Cecil's speaking voice increasingly hushed and mumbly, and for the last half-hour of the movie, it's very hard to understand much of what he says. Far better (much to my surprise) is Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria. It's a role that plays into Winfrey's public persona in some ways; Gloria is the grande dame of her household, used to being the center of attention (and loving it), and knowing exactly how to play to whoever else is in the room. Her relationship with Cecil is the strongest thing in the movie, a bond that remains sexual even when the two are no longer young; even in an embarrassingly awful black-and-white disco-era jumpsuit, Winfrey is sexy.

The Gump-iness of the civil rights story works against it, and makes it hard to take seriously. There is one spectacular scene, though, in which after a few years of estrangement, Louis and his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia), who is even more radical than Louis, come to dinner with Cecil and Gloria. In the argument between Louis and Cecil, we get a real sense of why some older African-Americans were scared by the intensity and the radicalism of some activists. I would have loved to have seen that idea explored more deeply (and there's a great movie there waiting to be made).

The good stuff in The Butler is very good; the bad stuff is ghastly. The whole is uneven enough that I can't recommend it with any enthusiasm, but I wouldn't argue too strongly against it if you're interested, either.

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