Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler tells the story of the an African American domestic, played by Forest Whitaker who served in the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan.  Inspired by the true life of Eugene Allen, the film tackles the historic tapestry of the Civil Rights Movement as seen through the eyes of a man who laid witness, quietly and mostly invisibly, to all the behind the scenes events and turmoil.  Just the simple premise is evocative enough to send chills or squirmy enough to induce fear of what sort of monster could be unleashed in the wrong hands-- the film is a bit of both, a two headed dragon of the like that only such a fascinating and contentious director like Lee Daniels, he of Precious: Based on Novel "Push" by Sapphire and, more recently, The Paperboy, could create.  Thankfully his latest doesn't feature any water sports.

The Butler generated controversy earlier this summer over the copyright/publicity stunt over it's title-- a 1916 WB silent short film named "The Butler" is registered with the MPAA, which in turn resulted in the hasty re-titling to Lee Daniels' The Butler.  Yet if you look at the resume of Mr. Daniels, his latest seems the least likely (at least on paper) to demand the authorial moniker. It's square and polished and finessed with the gilded veneer that marks the sophisticated look of an awards hopeful, with the backing Harvey Weinstein, ever more so.  However, the horny, fussy bearings that mark all Lee Daniels joints pop up and down The Butler like a candy-colored landing strip.  If there one takeaway from each of films, it may be why bother emphasizing a point when you can't pound it into your central nervous system.

A sprawling, emotionally resonant, at times overbearing and ridiculously messy three-hankie salute of a film, The Butler manages to be the film who entirely expect to be, yet manages to (many times in spite of itself) maintain utter watchability and sustain generous audience good will.  Allen's story is fictionalized and his namesake is changed to Cecil Gaines.  Gaines was born into a poor Southern family of cotton plantation workers.  The film begins its episodic survey of the Civil Rights Movement with the personal tragedy Cecil witnesses as a young boy when his father was murdered by a violent white man (whose scruffy nastiness is punctuated to total yuck effect by Magic Mike star Alex Pettyfer.)  His mother, played by Mariah Carey in a wordless cameo, is nearly completely bereft. The incident propels plantation matriarch Vanessa Redgrave (utilizing a sketchy Southern accent) to make Cecil her indoor domestic-- a through-line, connect the dots journey which eventually leads him to the White House.  The opening prologue is a little frightening in it's terse, nearly cartoon-ish brute force, but Lee Daniels' The Butler, for all its virtues (and there are many), has no interest in subtly.  The film has no interest in that.

It's all-star traversing of the Americana race politics stewed with equal parts grandiosity and reverence.  Daniels seems to relish flourishing each sequence with a italicized punctuation mark, just to make sure you've soaked in the gravity of each underlined point.  And while wearing multiple hats as showman, businessman and artiste manages a strange flow to his Butler, the film moves with a gracious beat, so that the small sequences that move manage to do so without the extraneous rigors.  It helps, exponentially, that actor like Whitaker, who can maintain a quiet dignity with little more than a passing shot on his eyes, leads the invigorating, if problematic film.  His Cecil, by design, is more of cipher character, as designed by Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (Emmy-winner for the Sarah Palin HBO film Game Change and forever Jonathon on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer), an invisible spectator to the sprawling history of the 20th century, like a smarter, but more passive Forrest Gump.

Yet why have just one Gump-ism, when you can have two.  The Butler settles between the dichotomy of Cecil at work versus Cecil at home, and while the White House presidential sequences have a heightened allure to them (as well as naval-gazing cameos from the likes of Robin Williams, John Cusack and Alan Rickman as one-time commanders in chiefs in a series sub SNL-like sketches; Jane Fonda does a walk-on as Nancy Reagan to full camp effect), it's the domestic life of the domestic that drives the drama.  Married to Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey, in her first big screen dalliance in sixteen years) and father of two, there's a rich, sometimes weird and wired texture to these scenes that spark The Butler.  Cecil's oldest, Louis (David Oyelowo) provides a flipped side of the same coin.  He's embarrassed and ashamed of his father's Uncle Tom-like servitude and seeks to become an active member for change in the growing fervor of the early 1960s.

Just as Cecil manages to find himself the quiet and inexplicable agent of change in the oval office, Louis goes out and assists in sit-ins, joins the freedom riders and becomes a student of Martin Luther King; he also seemingly manages to find himself at nearly cultural touchstone on the Civil Rights bus stop-- again, subtlety has no place in a Lee Daniels joint.  What is moving however is the father-son dynamic at the center, coalesced by Whitaker and a very good Oyelowo, who manage to trump narrative slog and majorly clunky dialogue and create a genuinely effective relationship.  Each informs the other as the films unfolds, as Cecil quietly manages to fight more so for himself at work, Louis starts to contemplate just how far he's willing to take his activism.  The core of the film consists of the interwoven splices of Cecil and Louis-- seemingly at odds, but playing the same hand, just maneuvering it differently.

The hot-bedded soap opera at the center of Gloria is a different thing altogether.  Daniels bows the stage for Winfrey in her scenes, giving her the opportunity to be front and center playing a seemingly lost-Tennessee Williams matriarch, a blowsy alcoholic whose love for her husband and family is belied by yen for something outside the box.  She's given a complicated character and is great fun to watch-- a mid-film, seemingly out of nowhere scene she shares with Terrence Howard provides a great, if detached cutaway, conveying a liberating feel for the media queen.  You never quite forget you're watching Oprah, in her fabulous, Oprah-ness, but there's a palpable glee to be felt by the fun she appears to be having.  And even a few, brief glances of lovely rapport with Whitaker, most of which are distracted themselves by the over-flooding of narrative strain.

It's a undisputed mixed bag of a film.  Perhaps several mixed bags of several film incorporated into one overly stuffed, luminously messy package.  The startling detail that makes Lee Daniels' The Butler necessary and worthy of such discussion and fascination is that's still only one of the very few films to focus on the Civil Rights Movement from the black point of view.  More so, it's one of the extremely limited accounts of such from a black filmmaker.  With few exceptions from the likes of Spike Lee (whose reputation, whether fairly or not) have limited his features critically and financially, The Butler, in all its unhinged messiness feels like a necessary and essential American film.  B-

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