Monday, September 9, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: "The Butler"

The Butler

As an American history buff
with a particular penchant for
presidential American history,
this one was right up my alley.

Directed by Lee DanielsThe Butler is (very) loosely based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, an African-American who worked as a White House butler, serving eight American presidents (Truman, EisenhowerKennedyJohnsonNixonFordCarterReaganfrom 1952 until his retirement in 1986.

I've always had a passion for American history. I also spent much time growing up in the south during the racially-charged civil rights movement of the '60s. As a result, I was intrigued by trailers for The Butler. Truth be told, I was just thrilled to venture out to the theater and plunk down a fistful of George Washingtons for any film promising something other than salacious scenarios, mindless drivel and gratuitous nonsense.

Eugene Allen (center), serving 
at the White House circa 1976.
Forest Whitaker heads an impeccable, all-star cast in the lead role of Allen's fictionalized character, Cecil Gaines. And therein lies the key word — fictionalized.

America now has become so sensitive — so politically polarized as a nation, that any Hollywood effort to recreate history is going to come under fire. Hence, The Butler simply offers a compelling story — one based on historical events.

Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines
More gripping than the dramatic behind-the-scenes accounts of various presidential administrations pinned against the backdrop of one of America's most explosive eras was the story — a heartfelt story about people. And I experienced a sense of personal connection to Cecil Gaines — his family, friends and co-workers.

In true Color Purple-like fashion, Oprah Winfrey delivers another absolutely amazing performance — spanking the role of Cecil's whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking wife, Gloria.

Oprah Winfrey asGloria Gaines
Other notable performances include David Oyelowo as Cecil's son, Louis / Terrence Howard as the Gaines'  neighbor, Howard / Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Cecil's friend, "Uncle" Carter Wilson and Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway,  Cecil's White House co-worker. Additional kudos to Yaya DaCosta who not only is extremely yummy, but who also was superb as Louis' love interest, Carol Hammie.

Oyelowo and DaCosta as Louis and Carol
As an American presidential aficionado, I thought that Robin Williams was pretty spot-on as Dwight D. Eisenhower, as were James Marsden as John F. KennedyMinka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. However, John Cusack as Richard Nixon was a bit of a stretch. Oh sure, Cusack has been supremely kickass throughout his 30-year career, but he didn't "become" Nixon in this role — he merely was John Cusack in a suit with his feet propped up on a desk, saying a bunch of stuff that Nixon might have said.

John Cusack as Richard Nixon
But Cusack as Nixon wasn't the most glaring miscast role. That distinction goes to Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson. Prosthetic earlobes excluded, there was nothing about Schreiber's look or performance that would have led me to believe that he was portraying LBJ. In fact, I had to check the closing credits to see if Stevie Wonder had in any way been involved in the casting process.

Although I was disappointed that the Truman administration was bypassed and that Ronald Reagan was portrayed as less than sensitive regarding race issues, I was reasonably satisfied with the presidential aspects of the film.

 Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson
In sum, I enjoyed The Butler — a lot. In fact it delivered maximum bang for my seven bucks. Just remember folks, it's Hollywood. While there are many aspects of the film with which some people are crying foul, I encourage movie goers to pull the stick out before leaving the house and just enjoy a riveting story that's packed with Oscar-worthy performances.

-Christopher Long
(September 2013)

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