Friday, August 23, 2013


On Monday evening we saw the movie The Butler (more correctly titled Lee Daniels' The Butler, due to some copyright debacle). The movie is another on the same wavelength as The Help and 42. The Help told the story of female African American domestic workers struggling against invidious segregation in the USA during the 1950s and 60s; 42 focused on an African American baseball player and his eventual rise to fame during a similar period. The Butler, as its title implies, shows us the view of similar times, but from the perspective of an African American butler in the White House. This film, like 42, is based on a true story, the life of Eugene Allen who served at the White House under eight US presidents from Truman to Reagan.

In the movie Forest Whitaker plays the fictional part of Cecil Gaines reflecting real life experiences of Eugene Allen (excellent performance it is too). We follow his life story from childhood on a cotton plantation, where he witnesses the murder of his father after his mother (played by Mariah Carey) is raped by the plantation overseer. Matriarch of the plantation (played by Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the bereft child, makes him a house servant, inducts him into the ways of house servants - along the lines of: The room should feel empty when you're in it.

After several years as house servant the young Gaines moves on, obtains work as a hotel steward, is further groomed, in the high arts of obsequiousness and attention to the smallest detail, by an old hand at the job. After some further years of polishing his skills Cecil is noticed and later head-hunted by a White House official.

The movie up to this point was done very well, I thought. It brought back memories of that wonderful mini-series Roots. I wasn't quite as impressed by the next section of the film, but was very interested to see how it unfolded.

We stagger uncertainly along with Cecil's first nervous steps in what would be an overwhelming experience for any of us, in any circumstance. One of the first things he's instructed by the head butler, and the first laugh of the movie for me and Himself:"We don't have politics in the White House". Cecil soon gets into the White House groove, his past training serves him well. We see him interact with a succession of presidents starting with Eisenhower (would you believe Robin Williams?), JFK (James Marsden who seemed way too petite for JFK - there must be actors more like him surely?) Jackie and Caroline Kennedy, LBJ (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (good if cartoonish turn by John Cusack), and Reagan (interesting effort by Alan Rickman who couldn't keep that wicked twinkle from his eye), with Nancy played, to the chagrin of many commenters, by "Hanoi" Jane Fonda, I thought she seemed just right for the part, albeit maybe a tad too tall.

Along with the expected focus on highlights and lowlights of the several presidencies the film follows Cecil's home life, and regained its former quality in my eyes. He married Gloria (Oprah Winfrey -blogger muffles a groan) and has two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo ) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). I'll not spoil the movie further for any passing reader who intends to see it by outlining the trials and tribulations linked to this part of Cecil's life. Enough to say that he faces heartache and dilemma vis–à–vis what is going on in the world outside the White House bubble in which he spends most of his waking hours. I'd best say also that, in spite of my strange intolerance for Ms Winfrey she did put in a very good performance.

The reason I wasn't as impressed with the White House section of the movie was its swing into almost cartoon mode at times. The film went from darkly serious, almost painfully so, to verging on farce. False noses, not even well-done false noses, LBJ sitting on the lavatory, JFK looking like a diminutive Tony Blair, Reagan - well...Rickman - need I say more? Now, I'm quite open to ridiculing presidents - most have deserved it at some point, but here it just seemed out of sync with the earlier tone of this movie and many of the later scenes. Cecil seemed to have genuine affection for at least some of the presidents. He wore a tie of JFK, given to him by Jackie, and the tie clip given to him by LBJ, to go to the White House to meet the new President Obama - this was after Cecil's retirement of course.

At this point I'll have a quick grumble.

As the movie ended, Cecil his family and friends were, naturally, overjoyed at the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. We watch them celebrate. At the time, in 2008, I celebrated too, I wept too. But ye gods, I'm angry now! Look what happened. Obama let them down. He let his people down. He let everyone who voted for him down.

"Enough"....I clearly remember newly elected Prez Obama saying that word. We should all echo it back to him....ENOUGH!


mike said...

I haven't seen a movie in a real theater for many years and doubt I will anytime soon. I usually read the book that the movie is based upon. I did find reviews of the book online, but NONE was favorable...essentially the book is an advert for the movie.

I did find the original Washington Post article outlining the life of Eugene Allen, to which the movie supposedly takes many liberties:

Was the movie full of false equivalencies? LOL

Twilight said...

mike ~ I hadn't read anything about Eugene Allen himself before seeing the film, but did know it was based on a real person. I also knew not to expect a straight autobiography in documentary style - that would never put bums on seats these days!

I've read more about the liberties taken with Allen's actual life story now. I can see why some of them would be necessary to highlight the full flavour of the times the film was depicting.

Allen had only one son, not two. His son served in Vietnam and is still around. His wife didn't turn to drink nor was there any suspicion of her having an affair (actually I didn't see much of that in the movie anyway, but other commenters on the net seem to have implied more than I did from certain scenes).

Was it full of false equivalencies?!

I wasn't here during the segregation era (thank goodness!)
That, to my mind, was equally as bad as the slavery era - actually somewhat worse because a very bloody war had been fought to free the slaves yet what did the population of the USA do to those freed people? Treat them like animals, hardly better than the slave owners in fact.

Slavery existed in almost every country of the world at some point - USA wasn't exceptional in that. I don't know of another country which treated its freed people (and they were "its people", not aliens) in such an inhumanly disgusting way.

Films such as this, and the others I mentioned, in spite of certain liberties taken, do serve to remind a new generation (and the old generations) of what went on....I feel that's very important.

mike (again) said...

There was no plan in place for post-emancipation. One day they were slaves, next they were free. Most had no resources or a place to go, so most of the "freed" stayed-on as sharecroppers. Sharecropping was a situation where the (previous master) land owner provided the rental of land, tools, and seeds ON CREDIT to be paid with the first crop. The sharecropper could never get ahead of the game, even in a good year...imagine the consequences of crop failures. This sharecropping was a new name for the old slavery.

"To be a Slave", by Julius Lester, is an excellent read. It's a children's book that won several awards. I found it in a thrift store years ago. It's a powerful book to be read by an adult.

anyjazz said...

I found the movie mildly entertaining, parts serious, parts cartoony. I didn't feel that there was really a lot of depth in the story line. The actors were chosen right. Over all it worked well.

Twilight said...

mike ~ I understand - yes. In the decade or so immediately following abolition there were bound to have been difficulties, and the feeling that things were not much different.
But what about well into the 20th century- for most of the first half of the century in fact, when segregation was really really bad - why, why why?

Twilight said...

anyjazz~ I suppose the storyline had to remain shallow due to the length of time it covered - practically a whole lifetime. but I get what you mean. The butler and his sons' casting seemed right, but I don't agree about the rest.

A more serious/deeper feel might have been achieved using less well-known actors for the presidents' parts. I think using big name actors was mistake, a cynical ploy to fill cinemas. Also there are dozens of African American actresses who could have played the butler's wife equally as well as Oprah.

I enjoyed it overall, mostly for the additional background info : getting my 'Murican knowledge filled in ;-(

LB said...

The true story of Eugene Allen seems interesting/inspiring enough. I'd probably pay money to see that made into a movie, whereas I'm not so sure about Lee Daniel's "The Butler". Though I've always liked both Forest Whitaker and Oprah as actors, I have mixed feelings about this particular film.

For the same reasons, I've held out on seeing last year's "Lincoln" or "Argo" - maybe I'll eventually break down and rent them from the library, who knows?

Certain artistic liberties bother me more than others. In general, when it comes to movies billed as being 'loosely based on' (or 'inspired by') actual people or events, I don't like it when filmmakers change undisputed facts or use major embellishments or omissions that feel manipulative, as if they have a specific agenda. The truth speaks for itself - it's not like there's a shortage of compelling stories out there. Fictional characters or events set against historical backdrops work too.

I do appreciate your movie reviews, Twilight.:)

Twilight said...

LB ~ These days I'll go see anything without lots of gore, gratuitous violence, juvenile "humour", or cast with an average age of 19 doing work according to plot which would tax a well-seasoned professional with many years' experience.
All of which doesn't leave a lot of choice! We do like to patronise our local cinema to try to keep it alive, though, so can't be too discerning beyond certain limitations. :-)

There were only 5 other couples in the audience on Monday evening, and not many cars outside, so the other 5 screens were not doing too well either.
I guess movie theatres are going the way of all flesh, and blogs, and hand-written letters, and even e-mails. Dang!!

I saw both Lincoln and Argo and did enjoy them both, being previously largely uneducated about the stories they were telling, other than in "headline" fashion. Simply had to see Lincoln as it has David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader - 3 of my favourites at one sitting!

Thanks - I'm glad my scribbles on the movies are of interest. I enjoy doing them. :-)

LB said...

My husband and I just started going to the movies within the past year or so - it's become a nice treat, and I relate to your wanting to support local theaters.

To be honest, I don't know that I'm all that particular either, though it sounds like we try to avoid some of the same kinds of movies. The movie "Lincoln" happened to come out right after I'd finished reading about Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists and their *long* struggle to influence President Lincoln and others. My understanding is the movie focuses on a brief period of time at the end of Lincoln's presidency and the point he eventually arrived at, not the path it took to get there - after what I'd read, the picture it painted seemed misleading.

Twilight said...

LB ~ Yes, Lincoln maybe ought to have been differently titled. It did focus directly on abolition of slavery and the fight to achieve it, as did its British counterpart Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce's struggles for the same ends. I've since seen that one on DVD.