Wednesday, August 14, 2013
America, As Witnessed By Lee Daniels' The Butler
Lee Daniels' The Butler (so named as to not be confused with another film titled The Butler produced in 1916 by Warner's) is one of the most talked-about movies of the year.
This big, star-studded film covers more than half a century. Based on a story in the Washington Post, it tells the tale of Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who served at the White House from the Eisenhower era into the Reagan administration. The butler's actual name was Eugene Allen.
Gaines' story is intertwined with the story of America during this period from the relatively sedate 1950s through the tumultuous 60s and the war-torn 70s and into the boom years of Reagan prosperity. The script by Danny Strong (based on the article by Will Haygood) keeps shifting back and forth between Cecil's inspiring personal story and the story of the civil rights movement in America.
We saw this film in director Daniels' hometown with an enthusiastic audience that included Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, Daniels himself and stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Yaya DaCosta.
If you were born after 1975, much of The Butler may be informative for you -- if not an outright revelation. And, even if you're not particularly interested in the history you can still appreciate the story.
But if you actually lived through the greater part (if not, all) of the civil rights struggle as we have, this tale can be painful for you. Indeed, we found it hard to revisit since we marched alongside protesters of that era and lived bits and pieces of the history.
Parts of The Butler are like ripping a bandage off an open wound. It's searing.
This is a movie with a strong point of view and it's not shy about pushing it.
Still, the story is tempered and deepened by human, three-dimensional performances rendered with humor, pathos and great attention to detail by an extraordinary cast. Daniels' explains that he wanted the tale to include all of the richness of the African-American experience that he remembers growing up as a kid in Philadelphia. He says the personality traits of his own friends and family members are woven into the story's characters.
But then Daniels added that for him "the story of America is the story of the civil rights movement."
Well, the story of America encompasses a bit more than that.
For one, just imagine what Native Americans would think of Daniels' statement. As the late Alistair Cook pointed out in his landmark work, America: "For at least a hundred and fifty centuries before 'Yankee Doodle,' the Indians' way of life was 'the American way of life.'"
But this is Daniel's movie and he's decided that this is American history for him and he wants the story to be told from a decidedly African-American point of view. So, African-American actors play the lead roles and white actors make up the supporting cast. And in this film, that means that all of the presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan are supporting players. We found John Cusack's performance as Nixon (with way too much hair) to be almost laughable whereas Liev Schreiber was fine as LBJ and Alan Rickman was a fairly convincing Reagan.
Forest Whitaker is outstanding as the butler and is likely to gain another Oscar nomination. Ditto Oprah Winfrey who plays the butler's wife. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is another standout. But there are so many fine performances in this film that it's difficult to name them all.
Lee Daniels' The Butler opens tomorrow.