Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Butler

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As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man's life, family, and American society.

PT2M32S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2w1fb 620 349 October 23, 2013

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

THE BUTLER
(M, 132 minutes) Opens Thursday
★★★

With its first-ever black president currently trudging through a turbulent second term in office, director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) employs the real-life story of long-serving White House butler Cecil Gaines as a means of looking back at the struggles of black America.

A typically stoic Forest Whitaker stars as Gaines: a mild-mannered man, who grew up in the cotton fields of the Deep South. We're told the young Gaines witnessed the assassination of his father, after his mother (played by Mariah Carey) was brutally raped. The then-white-dominated world order - if you were black, keep your head down and your mouth shut - ensures that Gaines wisely bides his time and bites his tongue, eventually winding up as a waiter of some repute on the east coast, free from the southern apartheid-styled life his parents endured.

Before long, Gaines is serving the President in the Oval Office, while his son (David Oyelowo) becomes increasingly radicalised, with the Deep South turning into a battleground over black rights. Gaines's wife (Oprah Winfrey), meanwhile, turns to the bottle (and a neighbour and family friend) for solace. As each president comes and goes, and the passage of time passes, Gaines barely says boo, dutifully performing his work for a succession of leaders, until an about-turn sees him resign during the 1980s.

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The story goes that while presidents came and went, Gaines did not. And, judging from Daniels's well-meaning but rather heavy-handed and laboured film, that was largely down to his ability to keep quiet, even when quizzed on his own politics (while his son was becoming a Black Panther).

Whitaker is perhaps an obvious choice to play Gaines: he has an everyman quality about him, a forceful screen presence that's coupled with vulnerability. Audiences believe him to know right from wrong. They trust him. Wherever Forest goes, we follow. Winfrey makes a welcome return as an actor, her first screen role since 1998's Beloved.

Daniels's film seeks to present their domestic strife against the backdrop of historical events in the south. That is, potentially, dramatically problematic, in itself. Throw in a series of better-known historical figures - a series of US presidents, no less - and a light serving of frothy, kitchen-sink goings-on with Gaines's colleagues (played by Cuba Gooding Jnr and Lenny Kravitz, among others) and the focus of the piece gets lost.

Given Gaines effectively behaves in the same, subservient way with all his presidents, a workable solution to this dramatic dilemma would have been to keep the politicians out of the picture, quite literally. But perhaps that's asking too much of a commercial picture in this day and age. So, instead, an almost comical roll-call of fine acting talent attempts to inhabit presidents past: Robin Williams inadvertently gets matters off to a laughable start as Eisenhower; James Marsden fares much better as Kennedy; John Cusack goes for something quite bizarre as Nixon, while Alan Rickman nails Reagan to a tee. Only Jane Fonda's ghastly impression of Nancy undoes the trick.

The film, then, becomes something of a game. While the grim events down south unfold with ever-increasing horror, one's left waiting to see who on earth will next step into the White House, and when. And later, once we have Ronald and Nancy inhabiting the White House, will Gaines really leave it all behind, after all this time?

Clearly, this is a subject close to Daniels's heart - as a black gay American, he's got more cause than most to revisit this stuff - and to his assembled cast, who all pitch in with their hearts and souls. Winfrey is particularly good, despite her character arc being embellished considerably for the purposes of this film (Mrs Gaines was far from a boozy adulterous figure in real life). And Whitaker nobly embodies the figure of Gaines as one would expect. But the film feels unsure of what exactly it wants to be, or where it wants to go. Was Daniels more interested in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the Black Panthers that rose out of it? It would appear so. It's not a disaster - it actually finishes off years later, rather tweely, with Obama's rise to power and taking the US presidency - but this is not the grand historical drama it could, and should, have been. For that, we'll have to wait a few more months (with the upcoming 12 Years a Slave, from British director Steve McQueen).


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