Monday, January 20, 2014

Lee Daniels The Butler

I have been waiting since last Thursday to post my review of this great movie.  In the meantime, my phone service (which includes my dsl) died.  Turns out the landscapers had dug trenches all over the property without checking where the phone cables were laid.  It's finally repaired.  So I'm baaaaaccckkk AGAIN!  My life recently has had the slogan once used for the 1970s film "Westworld" - "Where nothing can go worngg!"  (Too bad Yul Brynner didn't show up in his black gunslinger suit to chase me around with evil intentions! I wouldn't have missed being online at all.)

But as usual, I digress.  Last week I watched Lee Daniels' wonderful film, "The Butler."  It was loosely based on the life of a real person, an African-American man who grew up in the rural south in ugly times for his people.  He became one of the butlers at the White House and served for over thirty years through the administrations of eight presidents.

The film has true elements but is mostly fictional.  It is the story of Cecil Gaines, who as a young boy watched his father get shot to death by a cotton plantation owner.  Cecil's father objected after the plantation owner raped his wife (Cecil's mother).  When the shooting was over, the owner's mother/grandmother (not clear in the film but well played by Vanessa Redgrave) took Cecil into the house to train to be a house servant.  Cecil's mother was so traumatized, she wasn't really present for the rest of her days.  When he was old enough, Cecil left the place and was on the streets for a while.  He finally was given a job in a restaurant.  Eventually, he landed a prestigious job in DC at a fancy hotel where all the dignitaries met for cocktails. 

He was observed being diplomatically silent during a heated political debate by a White House staffer.  As a result, Cecil was hired to be a butler at the White House - one of nine butlers.  Gradually, he worked his way up the hierarchy.

He and his wife had two sons.  The older one was bookish, serious.  The younger one was a happy child delighted by life.

The entire cast is stellar.  There is not a mediocre performance among them.  Honestly, I was very disappointed at the Oscar nominations for this year.  The good cast members of this film were overlooked, despite a lot of Oscar buzz when it opened.  At least the Screen Actors' Guild recognized them.

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines.
Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, Gloria.
Clarence Williams III plays mentor to Cecil as a young man.
David Oyelowo plays Cecil's eldest son.
Elijah Kelley (wonderful in the movie "Hairspray") plays his youngest son.
Nelsan Ellis (aka as Lafayette on "True Blood") plays Martin Luther King.
Yaya DeCosta, the lovely young dancer from Antonio Banderas' film "Take the Lead", plays Cecil's oldest son's love interest - a young radical who bears a striking resemblance to Angela Davis during the years of the black power movement.

The casting of the roles of the presidents and their wives in some cases is inventive, to say the least.

Robin Williams plays Eisenhower. (Robin Williams?!! But he is very true to the character. His performance reminded me what a gifted actor he is.)
James Marsden (also great in "Hairspray") plays JFK.  While his appearance only suggests the real man, his vocal impression is the most spot-on I have heard to date.
Liev Schreiber plays LBJ - No, I'm not kidding.  The handsome actor does an incredible job as the bigger than life Texan. (Believe me, I can spot a fake Texan a mile away.)
John Cusack plays Nixon, with all the inherent paranoia of his later years.  He wears a fake nose to look more like Nixon, but the expressions and voice make the resemblance praise worthy.

Jane Fonda, in a surprising turn, plays Nancy Reagan.  I wonder what the real Mrs. Reagan thinks of that casting?  Ms. Fonda does a wonderful job in the role.
Alan Rickman, a famed British actor, known best as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films to most Americans, plays Ronald Reagan.  He does wear facial prosthetics to look more like the president. He captures the essence of the extrovert in the White House.

The film moves from the Eisenhower administration to the Obama administration.  In the story, Gaines works until the first Bush administration.  But as retirees, he and his wife are still around for President Obama's election.

The story chronicles the history of Civil Rights with no holds barred.  Cecil's eldest son becomes a freedom rider and ultimately a member of the Black Panthers.  This causes a rift between Cecil and his son.

Cecil's youngest son believes in his country and joins the military.  He goes to Vietnam with disastrous results.

The plot is resolved in a surprising but most believable way.  The film has excellent performances throughout.  The story will make you laugh and make you cry.  It is a rich panoply of our recent history.  It tells the real story of the Civil Rights movement and the gains made and not made.  All of this is seen through the eyes of the butler, an intelligent man with no formal education.

It's well worth your time.  Check it out.  It's a great movie.

Remember to have some tissues where you can reach them.  You'll need them a time or two.

Until next time, enjoy our rich pop culture.

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