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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'
About time story is told from black man's perspective
Published Tuesday, August 13, 2013 11:00 am
by Dwight Brown, NNPA

In the movie, "Lee Daniels' The Butler," lead character Cecil Gaines' (Forest Whitaker) devotion to his duty drives wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) to drinking and the arms of neighborhood lothario (Terrence Howard). Movie in theaters Aug. 16.

It’s about time!

We finally have a major-release film about the African-American struggle for equality, told from a black man’s perspective.

Why has it taken Hollywood (aka the film industry) so long to do the right thing?

Eugene Allen served eight presidential administrations from Truman to Reagan over 36 years in various positions at the White House. However, it is his role as a butler that made him the subject of a Washington Post article in 2008, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” and brought him notoriety.

That article became the basis for “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” which intelligently pays homage to Allen and Black American history. This evocative film is a momentous accomplishment. A milestone.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grew up in Macon, Ga., picking cotton with his father in the 1920s. After his dad was killed, he worked in a home on a plantation as a servant. As a young adult, Cecil parlayed his service skills into a job at a swank Washington, D.C. hotel, where his ability to be apolitical and verbally spar with rich white men got him noticed by an official at the White House.

Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) were pleasantly surprised when he got a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There, he slowly grew up the ranks, becoming a head butler who worked directly with the leaders of government.

Cecil and Gloria had two sons. Louis (David Oyelowo, "Red Tails"), the rebellious one, and his younger brother Charlie (Elijah Kelly) reaped the benefits of a stable middle class life. They grew up in a nice environment, surrounded by nurturing friends and family members.

When Louis went off to Fisk University, it was inevitable that he would rebel against his apolitical father and become an ardent civil rights advocate. He met and fell in love with Carol (Yaya Alafia, "Mother of George"), and the two, through sit-ins and civil disobedience, sought an end to Jim Crow laws and segregation.

Cecil was mortified to learn of his son’s endeavors. Meanwhile at the White House, he was setting tables, serving martinis and making small talk with Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Jackie Kennedy (Minka Kelly), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and Nixon (John Cusack).

Upstairs, the presidents and their white male staff members made far-reaching decisions on civil rights, wars and world events. Downstairs, the mostly black maids, kitchen staff, doormen and butlers formed a camaraderie.  

Cecil’s circle of friends included co-workers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.). His attention to duty, and not to his wife, led Gloria to booze and another man’s (Terrence Howard) arms.

Oprah’s performance grows on you. You know you’re watching a billionaire mogul on the screen, but her acting overwhelms her pop culture persona. By the end of the film she’s worn you down, and Gloria feels like that pushy aunt who was always the life of the party.

Whitaker’s portrayal is even subtler as he ages from a young man to an octogenarian. The nuances of his scenes with presidents, jovial moments with colleagues and the turmoil at home make Cecil feel authentic.

David Oyelowo’s passage from teen to middle-aged man is equally mesmerizing. He works the anger emotion well.

Terrence Howard, as the neighborhood lothario with a blatant sexuality and volatile temperament, is suitably edgy.

Minka Kelly and James Marsden embody Jackie K. and JFK and other various cameos are right on target. Minus Mariah Carey, who seems miscast, though her performance is solid.

This film obliterates other recent films that chronicled black history. There is no worthy comparison.

"Miracle at St. Anna": Well-intentioned, poorly conceived. "Lincoln": It white-washed emancipation. "The Help": A white lady saves the day. "Django Unchained": Slavery as a joke.

As voting rights take a beating from the Supreme Court, and black kids are killed for walking down the street, the pertinence of this film is oh so apparent.

A young Cecil when explaining how he became such an adept server: “I was a House-N’word.” A new mentor corrects him: “Don’t you ever use that word! That’s a white man’s word filled with hatred.”

This powerful drama, which is based on fact and told from a black perspective, puts the African-American community’s hard-fought struggle for equality into context. Brilliant. Historic. Compelling. ★★★★

Related article:


Gaines ages into a nonagenarian.
Posted on August 14, 2013

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