19 Nov 2013

The Butler

I love a good ensemble movie I really do. The well placed combination of excellent performers can make for a spectacular movie. This film interested me not just because of the ensemble cast; Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave to mention but a few, but because these great actors are only cameo roles. 

That is because this story is, as the name maintains, about the White House Butler, and not so much about the Presidents. But more than that it is a story of the civil rights movement in America as told through a man who lived through most of last century. Born on a plantation and then serving every American President from Eisenhower through to Regan.  

Forest Whitaker plays the central character Cecil Gaines and gives a very  balanced, if quiet, performance of a man devoted to service, even at the expense of his family. It is certainly a good performance of  a man who is exceptionally grateful for his lot in life, and  is completely alienated from his son Louis (David Oyelowo, who I still remember as Danny from Spooks) who is heavily involved in the civil rights movement. 

But I think that it was Oprah Winfrey who gave the strongest performace as the mother and wife who had to cope with both. Yes both Whitaker and Oyelowo gave good performances, but Oprah gave the most memorable. It is easy to forget that after years of being a day time talkshow host that she is an academy award winning actress. 

But of course it is an exceptional cast and wonderful to see. James Marsdon, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams were great as JFK, Regan and Eisonhower respectively. Vanessa Redgrave retains a screen presence even now at 76 that stays with you despite being in the film for less than 2 minutes.
Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz were also very good. And this film is carried by the strength of these performances very well.

 The Butler  has gotten a fair bit of comment for its subject and its depiction of the almost mythologcal heroes of Amercias past, its presidents. It is hard for me as a non American to understand their devotion to their leaders. In my country our prime ministers are hardly the sort of  men and women that inspire that sort of loyalty or affection. 

The most notable is the depiction of Ronald Regan by Alan Rickman.

Michael Regan  the son of the president wrote in an article on Newsmax
"'Portraying Ronald Reagan as a racist because he was in favor of lifting economic sanctions against South Africa is simplistic and dishonest," 

Writer Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels have certianly taken a "creative" approach to this story. The Butler is inspired by the real life White House butler Eugene Allen. His story was captured by Wil Haygood five years ago in an article in the Washington Post.

But it is important to remember that unlike a film like RushThe Butler  is a work of fiction. An artistic vision inspired by Eugene Allen's career in the White House, to depict the struggles of the civil rights movement in America, not so long ago.

But in trying to depict one aspect of American history does it distort another? Was Regan as unsymapthetic to South Africa as he was depicted, or were their wider considerations. Another criticism has been the influence that the Gaines character has on the presidents he served under. But I am not so sure that I agree with that.

I think this year is an interesting year for Hollywood with films like  The Butler, and 12 years as a Slave show casing African American history and talent. These films are important and certainly controversial.

But more  importantly to you my reader, it is a good film to watch, and not just because of the subect.  The Butler  is entertaining, interesting and packed with good performances.

8 Monkeys

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