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The Butler

The Butler

What She said:

She

Let me just start by saying that I’m generally bothered by movies that carry their director’s or writer’s names.  I find it unnecessary and shamelessly self-promoting.  And so, Lee Daniels’ The Butler had tickled my annoying bone before I even set eyes on it.  Seriously, just call it The Butler.  Anyway, I set aside my prejudices, literally, and decided to give this film a whirl.  Afterall, it’s a historical drama, which typically means that it would jive well with me.  Well, I’m happy that I did, because The Butler (yes, I’m shortening the title for the rest of my review) told a compelling story and featured outstanding performances from an all-star cast. 

The Butler follows Cecil Gaines, an African American man who grew up on a cotton plantation in the South during the height of slavery and racial segregation.  His father was murdered in front of him by one of the white plantation owners when he is just a boy.  As a teenager, he’s allowed to leave the plantation and pursue employment elsewhere.  Gaines struggles at first, but eventually finds work at a hotel.  He becomes experienced serving as a butler, and starts to work his way through the ranks.  Cecil has a clear talent at the profession, and he is eventually tapped to become a butler at the White House.  There he works for three decades and through eight Presidential administrations.  He has a first-hand view of the political decisions that face the country during one of its most controversial and challenging periods, marked by the African American battle for equality and Vietnam.  At the same time, Gaines struggles to keep his family together and bond with his eldest son who is following his own path.

The film is supposedly based on the real life of Eugene Allen.  However, I’ve read that much of what is portrayed in the movie has been glamorized or the truth has been stretched to add dramatic flair.  Either way, it’s impressive that one person would remain a butler in the White House for so long.  Truly, it must have been an experience to have been able to witness so much. 

The Butler

Anyway, the best part of this movie is clearly the performances of the cast involved.  The Gaines family is portrayed by Forest Whitaker (Cecil), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria), David Oyelowo (Louis), and Elijah Kelley (Charlie).  The meat of the story really revolves around the fragile relationship between Cecil and wife Gloria, and Cecil and his eldest son Louis.  While at their core, Cecil and Louis may share similar beliefs about segregation in America, they take very different approaches toward addressing it, and this is a huge point of contention between them.  Gloria, caught in the middle, resorts to drinking as a method of coping with the discord within her family.  There are plenty of conflicts and terse conversations in this movie.  Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo are all fabulous is bringing their characters to life and giving them the humanistic qualities and flaws that they need to tell the story.

We have tons of periphery characters here who feature many, many big name actors.  We’ve got the White House worker group with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, and the string of presidents ranging from Eisenhower to Reagan, with Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman.  Then there are the civil rights historical figures, headlined by Nelsan Ellis playing Martin Luther King, Jr.  And of course, we’ve got characters from Gaines past and private life, featuring actors Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, David Banner, and Terrance Howard. 

So many actors, all with their A-game on.  You know a movie is a big deal when Oprah is in it.  And while the story of this film is interesting, I found the performances to be most entertaining.  I was particularly amused by the casting of Alan Rickman, a Brit, as one of the most iconic American Presidents, Ronald Reagan.  I was actually chuckling at the irony. 

Story-wise, the film is decent.  You can tell that some parts are overdramatized to Hollywood things up, but you have to take it with a grain of salt.  While there are parts of The Butler that I think are a bit overdone, I was fascinated by what took place on screen and so that kept me captivated for the film’s entire 2 hour, 12 minute runtime. 

Aside from the acting, one other point where this movie really shines is the hair and make-up.  The He and I marveled in how the moviemakers managed to age people without it looking fake or cheesy, like it so often does on the big screen.  No Curious Case of Benjamin Button here.  All of the prosthesis and hairpieces looked natural and authentic.  They better win an Oscar in this oh-so-important, but often overlooked category.

The Butler lives up to most of its hype as an interesting movie.  It’s not as groundbreaking or powerful as I think it wishes it was, but it’s a decent flick, and worthy of a watch. 

Thumbs up.

The Butler

What He said:

He

Cecil Gaines is a young man who works on a cotton farm with his family, as well as many other African Americans from the local community. They work for The Westfall family. The matriarch of the family, Annabeth (Vaness Redgrave), isn’t so bad. She seems to treat the help pretty well and actually takes young Cecil under her wing; and takes him out of the cotton fields and into the house. She has him trained as a butler. That turns out to be a pretty big deal, as Cecil takes those skills and use them later in life. Annabeth’s son, Thomas, on the other hand, is a nightmare. He has no respect for minorities and treats them like they are subhuman animals. Actually, I wouldn’t even treat an animal the way he treats the workers on the farm. The guy (Alex Pettyfer) is a terrible human being from top-to-bottom. So it’s because of Thomas – and the generally terrible lifestyle of a plantation worker – that Cecil decides to leave.

The Butler

The movies follows Cecil’s trials and tribulations as he tries to make it on his own, but the meat and potatoes of the story is when Forest Whitaker takes over for the role as Cecil. He plays Cecil for most of the character’s life.
So Cecil is working in this really posh hotel, where he often serves political big wigs, when one day he gets a phone call about a job offer. The job is a position on the wait staff at the White House. It turns out Cecil had served someone at the hotel and really impressed them. His wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and youngest son Charlie (Isaac White at this point in the movie) are happy. This is a good move for the family. It will help them better prepare for the future.
Speaking of the future, oldest son Louis (David Owelowo) is getting closer to leaving for college. He’s also pretty indifferent about his father’s promotion. He doesn’t say much about it, but he’s embarrassed by his father’s career. He sees it as degrading. When he meets his future girlfriend at Fisk University he lies about what his father does because he’s ashamed of it.

Louis is a lot different from his father. He doesn’t like that his father serves people and thinks he doesn’t do enough to improve civil rights for African Americans. While at school, Louis tries to do exactly that. He ends up joining various civil rights groups. He tries a few different ones. At one point he’s a member of the non-violent Freedom Riders and at another, he’s a member of the Black Panthers. He was always more aggressive than his father, but you watch him become much more angry and bitter as time goes on, which furthers the divide between him and his father.

The relationship between the two characters is a nice subplot of the movie. The movie is a chronicle of Cecil’s life – particularly his experience as a butler – but his relationship with his son is also a big part of the story.
There’s also a subplot involving his relationship with his wife Gloria. Cecil works long hours and to fill the void in her life, she turns to alcohol; specifically with her neighbors Howard and Gina. The three of them party together regularly. Howard (Terrence Howard) is married to Gina (Adriance Lenox), but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing Gloria.
There’s a lot going on in the story, but because it takes place over such a long period of time, it doesn’t feel crammed in or tacked on. It really does feel like you’re watching a man’s life – and the events that make up his life- unfold in front of you.

The Butler

I haven’t even really touched on all the different Presidents portrayed in this movie. The movie covers most of Cecil’s life, which includes a 34 year career in the White House. During that time, he served many different leaders of our nation. I remember when some of the casting choices were announced, I raised an eyebrow. They just seemed off. Some of them seemed a little too young for the part. Others didn’t really look the part. Some came off like caricatures of the people they were portraying, though I do have to say I didn’t find that aspect that distracting. Truth-be-told, it’s hard not to look at any actor as coming off as a caricature when portraying a real life historical figure.

Some of them were actually kind of funny. Liev Schrieber had some hilarious moments as Lyndon B. Johnson. If he was anywhere near as quirky as this movie portrayed him, he must have been a handful. He had a very interesting way of conducting meetings, that’s all I’ll say. Nixon (John Cusack) seemed paranoid as hell. Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan made me laugh in parts, but it also made him seem like a genuinely good human being. I know the movie portrayed him as rather indifferent to some issues, but if the non-publicized things he did for the poor portrayed in this movie were true, I was really taken aback by that. I hope it is true, because just the thought of it makes me feel good. I can’t speak to the historical accuracies of our nation’s leaders in this movie, but it certainly made me feel like I got to know the people being portrayed.

The same goes for Cecil. The movie as such an in-depth look at this man’s life and I like what I see. He seemed like such a nice old man. He seems like the kind of guy you wished lived next door to you and you go over to his house to have a cup of coffee with him and listen about his life. I found him to be a legitimately interesting and likeable guy.
Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of his relationship with his oldest son and his wife were fantastic. He went through good times and bad with both of them and all three actors brought their A game. I give credit to Whitaker, Oprah (who surprised me), and David Owelowo (even if he did look a little too old for the part at times) for their performances. There was something about their performances that made me feel like I wasn’t watching a movie. I didn’t feel like I was watching characters in a movie, but rather getting a peek into people’s lives. I'm actually really surprised Whitaker wasn't nominated for an Academy Award. His performance was fantastic.

The makeup was absolutely fantastic in this movie. So often when actors portray a character who is in his older years, the makeup looks really bad. I’ve seen far too many movies where it looks like actors are wearing rubber masks. But the makeup in this movie was fantastic. The age progression of Cecil and Gloria looked 100% natural. It’s some of the best makeup I’ve ever seen.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on January 26, 2013

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