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CCurmudgeon logo newBY VAN ROBERTS

Hollywood loves to make star-studded spectacles about hardy individuals who survived turbulent times in America. The changes depicted in these epics provide an ideological perspective from which to evaluate the past. Sometimes, these movies focus on fictional characters, such as “Little Big Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Sometimes, they concern real-life individuals, such as Eugene Allen. Never heard of Eugene Allen? He was not a politician, a military hero, a notorious felon, a bestselling author, or an acclaimed athlete. He lived on the fringe and shined shoes in the most famous house in America. Indeed, great men struggle to chart the history of a nation. However, they couldn’t implement their ideas without a mass of individuals. Individuals like the protagonist in “The Butler,” are used as filters through which to view these events. Just as the Civil Rights movement boasted powerful charismatic figures, these messiahs found themselves indebted to their flocks, in other words, the maids, janitors, Pullman porters, and kitchen workers who worked behind the scenes. “Precious” director Lee Daniels demonstrates admirable restraint with this fictionalized account of a White House servant based on Eugene Allen. Allen served as a member of the White House domestic staff for 34 years. Between 1952 and 1986, Allen attended to eight U.S. Presidents dutifully, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Allen rose from a lowly position in the White House pantry to the highest post on the premises—the maître d’hôtel. Essentially, “The Butler” draws on “Washington Post” journalist Wil Haygood’s entitled “The Butler: A Witness to History,” 112-page biography of Allen, published last July. Allen’s life was as tragic as it was inspirational. He lurked on the periphery of history and saw as America’s best and brightest wrestled with the incendiary issues of race relations and segregation. Daniels said that scenarist Danny Strong and he resorted to the liberties that Hollywood takes to make history not only more palatable but also entertaining. “The Butler” swirls fact with fiction. A montage of historical events that made America tremble during the Civil Rights Era is unspooled before our eyes. Daniels reenacts the Freedom Rider bus trips, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration drives, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the emergence of the Black Panther party. Unfortunately, like Haygood’s superficial tome about Allen, the worst thing about this PG-13-rated opus is that it wades into the shallows but never plunges into the depths. Nevertheless, no matter how lukewarm it is, “The Butler” serves as a good primer for Americans who know little about Civil Rights history.Lee_Daniels_The_Butler_38813
“The Butler” chronicles the amazing life of Cecil Gaines (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker of “The Last King of Scotland”) from his youth in the cotton fields of Georgia to his years under the roof of the White House. The story unfolds with Cecil as an old man waiting to meet President Barack Obama. At this point, “The Butler” puts Cecil’s appointment on hold and enters flashback mode for the next two hours. Daniels shows us the events that brought Cecil to this momentous rendezvous. As a child, Cecil stood by helplessly as a promiscuous white landowner, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer of “Magic Mike”), raped his mother, Hattie Pearl (Mariah Carey of “Glitter”), in a nearby barn. When Cecil’s father Earl Gaines (David Banner of “Street Kings) approached the landowner, Cecil watched in horror as Westfall shot his dad in cold blood without a qualm. Thomas’ mother Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave of “Blow-Up”) removes young Cecil from the cotton fields. She trains him as a house servant. Eventually, after bidding farewell to his mother, Cecil leaves the plantation and heads north. One evening, a starved, desperate Cecil vandalizes a restaurant. Maynard (Clarence Williams III of “Half-Baked”), the elderly African-American who works in the restaurant, takes in Cecil and teaches him how to serve liquor. Later, at an upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant, where he waits tables, Cecil dodges a question about Arkansas’ racial segregation. Cecil’s discretion pays off. Another man in the bar, R.D. Warner (Jim Gleason of “The Apostle”), is searching for a pantry man for the White House. Now, grown up and married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey of “Beloved”), Cecil has two sons. Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo of “Jack Reacher”) attends Fisk University in Nashville against Cecil’s wishes. Louis engages in multiple acts of civil disobedience with Carol Hammie (Yaya Alafia of “TRON: Legacy”) and draw Cecil’s ire. Younger son Charlie (Elijah Kelley of “Red Tails”) joins the Army to fight in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Cecil watches as several Presidents grapple with Civil Rights. Some seek his opinion, but Cecil maintains his silence. Earlier, Maynard warned him to be a man of two faces. Even earlier, Westfalls’ mother told him: ”The room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Moreover, Cecil lives by the rule that keeps him muzzled in front of White House dignitaries. Cecil is a variation on the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s novel “The Invisible Man.”
Forest Whitaker delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. He ages convincingly from a younger to an elderly man. Daniels and Strong rarely use Cecil as a sounding board for the issues until racism confronts him in the White House and prompts him to crusade for equal wages for blacks and whites. Daniels stages several scenes between Cecil and the various Oval Office occupants. Robin Williams is comatose and unconvincing as Dwight Eisenhower. John Cusack is as hopelessly miscast as Richard Nixon as James Marsden is as John Kennedy. Liev Schreiber looks nothing like Lyndon Johnson. Nevertheless, Alan Rickman comes closest to looking like Ronald Reagan. Jane Fonda appears persuasively as First Lady Nancy Reagan. Oprah Winfrey sits on the sidelines at home, waiting for the chance to accompany Cecil to a White House function. The affair that she has with another character could have been deleted. Altogether, “The Butler” qualifies as a contrived, but eloquent biopic about a shrewd but sympathetic African-American who straddled two worlds shrouded in hypocrisy.

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