Monday, December 23, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler: A New Historical Perspective

Many films about slavery or the American civil rights movement do their subject matter a disservice by telling the tale from the perspective of white people. African Americans are routinely treated as supporting characters in their own history - look at a movie like Lincoln, which while discussing the Emancipation Proclamation managed to feature no important black characters at all. However, this year, there have been powerful performances from black actors in movies like Twelve Years a Slave, and Lee Daniels' The Butler, which deals with the complexities of being black in 20th century America.

Forrest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a man who grew up on a cotton plantation in Georgia, where he witnessed his parents' brutal treatment at the hands of the owner. Trained for household service, he eventually leaves the South and ends up in a hotel in Washington D.C. There, his polished training and careful apolitical attitude capture the attention of a White House staffer, who hires him to be one of the White House butlers. Beginning in the Eisenhower administration, Gaines works his way through eight presidencies, resigning during Reagan's first term.

The presidents are played by a variety of actors who put in interesting cameos, but the focus is squarely on Gaines and his family. His two sons are very different - the eldest, Louis (David Oyelowo), is intensely political and ashamed of his father's decision to keep his head down. The youngest, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), decides to serve in Vietnam, declaring to Louis that he wants to fight for his country rather than against it. In the meantime, Gaines' wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), has a difficult time trying to reconcile her quiet husband and her vocal son, while trying to figure out what her own opinions are in the civil rights debate.

When it focuses on Gaines and his family, The Butler is an engaging look at how the civil rights movement influenced people in different ways. Louis' growth from non-violent resistor, to budding Black Panther, to levelheaded politician showcases the evolution of civil rights in America and offers an interesting summary of the different ways people tried to fight for equality. Gaines' own political growth is gradual, thanks to a violent childhood that made him fear any kind of stand against authority, but he too eventually plays a crucial part at the White House.

The Butler features an excellent cast, all of whom lend a great deal of layered subtlety and empathy to their characters. The script lets them down - the cameos of various Presidents just distract from the story, even though each actor puts in a perfectly serviceable performance. At times it feels like The Butler is a searing documentary, interspersing archival footage to highlight the history of the period. But at other times, its attempts to link characters with major political events feel too contrived and melodramatic. Watch for the strong performances and historical background, but just because it is "inspired by a true story" don't be fooled. The main character is largely a character of fiction, not fact. But all things considered, The Butler is an important and informative movie, which offers an often neglected perspective on the fight for civil rights.

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