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Decades-spanning ‘Butler’ serves up food for thought

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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    ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

    Profile of a man who worked in the White House for seven presidents.

    B+ STARS: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr.

    DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels.

    RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes.

    RATING: PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, adult themes, smoking).



A friend of mine asked recently if we really needed a movie like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” now, nearly six decades after the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

Haven’t we all watched footage of blood-spattered marchers, police dogs and fire hoses turned on protesters or burned-out buses that once bore Freedom Riders? Do we need to see people of different races drinking from “white” and “colored” fountains, or look on as a horrified black man walks past the lynched bodies of two African-Americans?

I’d say yes: People under 40 never lived through those things, and they need to know our history. But if the film were merely a thinly disguised lesson in race relations, it would be an exercise easier to respect than to enjoy. Luckily, it’s the story of one specific black man who spent his whole life in the service of a country that took a long time to respect people of his skin color.

The character of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) starts as a sharecropper’s son in the 1920s and ends up serving seven presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan. (Screenwriter Danny Strong partly adapted Wil Haywood’s Washington Post article about Virginia’s Eugene Allen, who actually served eight presidents and died in 2010.)

We meet Cecil in a Georgia cotton field in 1926, when a white man shoots Cecil’s father for objecting to the rape of Cecil’s mother.

The killer’s own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) takes Cecil into her home and teaches him the rudiments of service. He learns the rudiments of self-respect from a butler in North Carolina (Clarence Williams III) and eventually gets a job at a Baltimore hotel. There his dignity and discretion earn him a job interview at the White House.

Strong and Daniels spend as much time with Cecil’s kin as with the White House staff: his uneducated, hard-working wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons, firebrand Louis (David Oyelowo) and conformist Charlie (Elijah Kelly).

The divisions in that family from the 1950s through the 1970s – some caused by Cecil’s refusal to sympathize with any black protesters – mirror divisions in America over those decades. We can empathize with Louis, who moves from lunch counter sit-ins to Black Panther meetings, while identifying with the father who worries his boy will end up a corpse at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan or the riot police.

Stunt casting for the presidents interrupts the flow. We wonder how Robin Williams aged into Dwight Eisenhower, or how Alan Rickman immobilized himself as the murmuring Reagan. The successful impersonation comes from Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, sitting on a toilet and dictating civil rights policy to his uneasy staff. (In this movie, all the presidents we meet move slowly and often reluctantly toward social justice.)

On the other hand, seeing Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Gaines’ friends or fellow employees gives us no pause, because we don’t know the real men they’re supposed to be.

Winfrey, who last starred in a feature 15 years ago (“Beloved”), reminds us she’s a subtle and talented actress. Oyelowo quietly sets the screen alight. But the movie belongs mostly to Whitaker, who can convey affection, sadness and disapproval while scarcely raising his voice or an eyebrow.

When Louis disparages his dad to Martin Luther King Jr., the preacher sets him straight: Maids and butlers get whites to respect blacks by defying stereotypes of laziness and incompetence. Whitaker’s performance reveals a man who unobtrusively changes white people around him – perhaps without trying or even knowing it – through his demeanor and ability.

That may seem too mild or familiar a message to some moviegoers. But in a year when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and the racial divide seems wider than ever, perhaps we need to hear it again.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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