Sunday, August 25, 2013


THE BUTLER (or as the director sees it: LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER—but I'm getting tired of the whole "auteur" thing unless it's someone like Woody Allen who writers and directs and etc....) is an obvious tour de force. And calculated to be so.

Forest Whitaker deserves an Oscar for the lead role that covers the course of a man's life over several decades, and despite his looking a little old for the earlier years pulling it off physically, emotionally and artistically. I didn't doubt his character for a second.

And Vanessa Redgrave (who for me is the greatest screen actor of all time) does her usual brilliant work, as does Clarence Williams III. But then there's a lot of trick casting, which, once you get past the trick actually in some cases works. Liev Schriber as LBJ for instance. I wouldn't have believed it but he pulls it off. And ditto for John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Not so much in his first scene as Nixon as VP, but as president, especially at the end, he does some beautiful work.

And James Marsden as JFK is totally believable, again once you get over the discrepancy in physical presence and looks. Jane Fonda also, who brings Nancy Reagan to life, despite seeming to get much of what her physical presence was actually like wrong. Fonda still captures the essence of Nancy Reagan's minor key regality.

But Robin Williams as Eisenhower? And Alan Rickman as Reagan? I never thought I'd see him do a bad acting job, but he misses Reagan by miles and miles, as does the script really. Danny Strong's writing is obvious and obviously aiming for symbolic gestures and deep meanings and character types standing in for political and social score keeping. And makes the usual oversimplification mistake when dealing with the complexity of 1960s racial and civil rights politics and realities (why are The Black Panthers always portrayed as cold and bloodthirsty? The ones I knew were the exact opposite! Though it's worth it to see Yaya Alafia in an afro, as well as the rest of her looks in another terrific performance).

And then there's Oprah as Whitaker's butler's wife. Oprah pulls some of her scenes off well, but she's still Oprah, and buying her as someone Terence Howard's roguish character (played brilliantly as usual) would cheat on his wife and Forest Whitaker to get a taste of more than once just didn't fly for me. There's more, like Lenny Kravitz in a very solid portrayal of one of Whitaker's character's fellow butlers and Cuba Gooding Jr's similarly solid portrayal as another of them and Mariah Carey's cameo as the main character's mother (she continually surprises as an actor).

I didn't even get to the actors who play Whitaker's character at younger ages or his sons at different ages, all good, and other actors who play characters' wives or maids who work with the butlers, etc. A lot of great work among them all.

But in the end, despite its obvious flaws and obvious obviousness almost every step of the way, it still pushed my buttons, brought tears to my eyes and led me to applaud along with everyone else when the film was over in the theater where I saw it in up in The Berkshires with my youngest and grandson and his cousin. Because it did tell some truths about our racial history, and it did honor many who suffered long and hard under our racial divisions and policies, and it did offer some solace and consolation for at least some of that suffering that has become in many cases truly history.

But, I'd like to see the movie of Rosa Parks' life, or Bayard Rustin's or the untold number of "Negro" heroes who put their lives on the line to make this country, and the world, a little bit better for their "race" and thereby for all of us.


JIm said...
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Jamie Rose said...

Great post Lals. I agree with your review. Note: I think it's called "Lee Daniels The Butler" because of big dispute with a studio (Sony?) over the name The Butler.

Lally said...

You're right Jamie. Someone sent me a link with a story of "The Butler" being a silent flick from 1916 owned by another studio and they couldn't come to an agreement on the name. Mu apologies to Lee Daniels.