Friday, August 16, 2013

Movie Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Went to the movies today to take in the rare summer movie release that does not involve (a) comic book super heroes, (b) a post-apocalyptic planet earth, (c) vampires, or (d) overly hormonal teenagers.

Instead, we took in a movie made for adults, "Lee Daniels' The Butler".  The movie is loosely based upon a real person, an African American man who served as a butler in the White House under seven Presidents, Eisenhower through Reagan.  I say "loosely based" because some liberties are taken with the timing of events so as to make Cecil Gaines, the butler, present at many of the momentous events experienced by the Presidents during Gaines' time of service.  

The movie also shows the history of the Civil Rights Movement, as experienced by Gaines' son, on a parallel track with the events taking place at the White House.  Many of these scenes - the shooting of a field hand, lynchings, treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South, lunch counter sit-ins, fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham - are upsetting to watch, but they are a real part of our history, and you just can't make such events pretty or easy to watch. 

It is a very good movie, and although movies released during the summer months are often forgotten come Academy Awards time, I am calling for Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.   As Barb Vancheri noted in her Post-Gazette review today, it might be hard to get over the fact that that is OPRAH WINFREY you are watching, but once you do, you realize that you are seeing a pretty amazing performance on screen.  Remember, Oprah was an actress before she became a talk show queen and a business conglomerate.

Some oddball casting here.  Clarence Williams III of Mod Squad fame - yeah, Linc Hayes is still around! - appears as one of Gaines' early mentors, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and in a bit of casting that will drive Reaganites absolutely crazy, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.  Actually, the Presidents in this movie are actually minor characters, and none of them are on screen for all that long.  And the movie's portrayal of Jack Kennedy spotlights a long held pet peeve of mine.  When playing a Kennedy, actors, in this case a guy named James Marsden, always have to use an exaggerated New England "pahk the cah" accent.  It's like they all have to turn into Vaughn Meader when taking on the role.  I wonder if that's how Daniel Day Lewis would do it?

And a word about the title of the movie.  When I first saw that it was not "The Butler", but "Lee Daniels' The Butler", I thought that this was the case of some ego maniacal director saying "look at me" by including his name in the official title of the movie.  Turns out that the movie is titled as it is due to dispute between rival movie studios over a similarly titled project.  So, my apologies to Mr. Daniels.

It's a good movie that I hope will find an audience among the lightweight movies of the summer months.  Speaking of which, I look forward to taking in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine", another movie for thinking adults, which is scheduled to open in Pittsburgh next week.

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