Lee Daniels’ The Butler (aka The Butler) review: civil-rights servant

Lee Daniels' The Butler green light Robin Williams Forest Whitaker

A deeply moving melodrama about a subtly subversive black butler at the heart of the White House. You will need Kleenex.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s most likely apocryphal, but that quote attributed to Winston Churchill is appropriate here: “The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” For this is one tiny slice of the dramatic history of civil rights progress in the United States as seen through the eyes of a black man who worked as a White House butler for decades… and the subtle impact he had on making America’s leaders realize that all other possibilities except acknowledging the humanity of nonwhite people were being exhausted. The story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker: The Last Stand) is loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from the tenure of Dwight D. Eisenhower through that of Ronald Reagan, and even where it has been fictionalized, it still reflects some of the awful realities of racism in the supposed land of the free. Cecil’s childhood, for instance — Michael Rainey Jr. portrays him at age eight — as a sharecropper in 1920s Georgia is barely distinguishable from the horrors of 12 Years a Slave, except that he is free to leave, and does, at age 15 (Aml Ameen: Kidulthood). His path to the White House leads him through other service work in a fancy hotel, where he learns how to put rich white people at ease and how to make a room “feel empty when I’m in it.” That sounds like a rather demeaning career, and indeed, the film explores whether it was, or whether there was a kind of subversion in the cultural role of the black domestic, and how historically complicated the image of the black domestic was and remains. This is no dry dissertation, however, but a deeply moving melodrama of the most honorable type (the script is the first feature written by Danny Strong, based on a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood), its politics and its heart illustrated through Cecil’s relationship with his wife, Gloria — Oprah Winfrey (The Princess and the Frog) is magnificent as a woman who’s not entirely satisfied with the life her husband has given her — and his sons, particularly the firebrand political activist Louis (David Oyelowo: Jack Reacher), with whom the apolitical Cecil frequently clashes. Director Lee Daniels (Precious) lets the film have a bit of fun with the big names appearing as the various Presidents — Alan Rickman (Gambit) as Reagan might be my favorite; John Cusack (The Frozen Ground) as a surprising Richard Nixon is a close second — but they never become caricatures. As far as the U.S. — and humanity — still have to go when it comes to combatting bigotry, to see how much has changed for the better over the course of just one lifetime is very touching. You will need Kleenex.

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