Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Butler

Plot: Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) saw his father shot on a cotton farm, and was taught to be a house servant by the shooter's mom. When he was older, he worked in a hotel, and then eventually joined the staff at the White House, serving Truman and all the presidents until Reagan. He was married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and had two kids. One son, Earl (David Banner), became a Black Panther and later a politician. The work life of Cecil Gaines is based on the life of Eugene Allen, a former White House butler, however most aspects of his personal life are fictional.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: The Butler tells the story of a movement, and a whole people's struggle through the story of one man. The scope of the story gives epic sweep and therefore power. Being a white guy, I experienced it in my own way. It made me think about how difficult it was to be a black person in the south immediately in the 40's, 50's and 60's. It was interesting to see the civil rights struggle through this lens. 

There apparently was a tradition of black house servants in the White House, and it is interesting that this tradition lasted so late into the 20th Century.  

I liked first 90 minutes a lot. The interesting parts were the little things in how black and white people treated each other. Whittaker's butler has so much dignity, and seems true to character. Oprah has a fine performance including some excellent physical gestures and emotional reaction; a great job for an inexperienced actress. 

Writer Danny Strong wove in the Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle using the device of an invented son. This generational aspect gave the movie a nice flow, and allowed the older generation to react to the younger. The invented character helped the story telling, and made the movie more impactful and enjoyable. On the other hand, I felt tricked when I found this fundamental aspect of the plot was fake. They should not have claimed it was based on a true story.

There are a few great visual images. The soundtrack was mostly from the period, and not very noticeable.

The tone is interesting and epic, but at the end it gets preachy, and voice-over narration is used to make sure the audience gets the points. I wish it would have ended with the same tone it started with. 

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Rating: 3.0 stars: A grand story with epic sweep that makes me feel good at the end. 
More: [SPOILERS]  As mentioned, there were numerous fictional liberties taken in the screenplay. Part of the power of the movie is that it teaches history. To the extent, that the history is false, I feel cheated.

For example, the older son, who went into the Black Panthers, was fictional. The actual butler, Eugene Allen, grew up in Virginia rather than Georgia, which makes his job in DC, more understandable. The younger son did not die in Vietnam, and is still alive. There is no record that Allen asked for a raise on behalf of the staff.  

Even More: Director Lee Daniels seems to have negotiated to have his name in the title as in "Lee Daniel's The Butler", but that is not right. The writer's name can be in the title, but not the director. The director's name can be advertised on the poster with the title, or whereever the graphic designer can put it. The director did not create the movie, s/he only stages it. The screenwriter created it, thus Danny Strong's The Butler would have be OK.