Serving Up History

Lee Daniels’ The Butler got the possessive name because of a brouhaha between the Weinstein Company, the distributor of this film, and Warner Brothers, who’d registered a silent film called The Butler in 1916 and brought an action with the MPAA aiming to stop the new film’s release. It may have been, as Harvey Weinstein suggested, an attempt by Warners to force the producer to give up his slice of the Hobbit series. In typical Hollywood fashion, the MPAA ruled the film could be retitled with director Lee Daniels name added, as long as Daniels’ name was at least 75% the size of type of The Butler. In another example of Hollywood deal making, the film credits 41 various producers and a half-dozen production companies. Somehow, through all that, Lee Daniels has made a powerful film.

Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker as an adult) was a young boy on a cotton plantation in the rural South in the 1920s. After the plantation owner rapes his mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) and kills his father, the matriarch of the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) brings him into the house and teaches him to be a servant. (That’s the nice title, but the film doesn’t shy away from using the common term from those days.) Cecil leaves the farm as a teen and almost starves, until he’s befriended by Maynard (Clarence Williams III) who trains him as a butler. He’s brought to Washington to work at one of the premier hotels, and then is hired away by the chief of household staff at the White House.

The focus of the movie stays on Cecil as he interacts with the high and mighty in Washington. He marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they have two sons, Louis and Charlie. While Cecil studiously avoids becoming entangled in politics, his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) is deeply involved in the fight for civil rights, including the Woolworth lunch counter protests and the Freedom Riders. Meanwhile Cecil and the other black butlers Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz) continue their work, even though they’re paid less than the white staff.

The presidents and first ladies are filled with name actors, though they appear only for short segments. Best are John Cusack as a quietly creepy Nixon and Liev Schrieber as LBJ, giving orders while sitting on his “throne.” Jane Fonda does a wonderful Nancy Reagan, and Alan Rickman is almost unrecognizable as Ronnie.

The film was inspired by a Washington Post feature article by Will Haygood from November 2008 titled “A Butler Well Served By This Election” that told the story of Eugene Allen, a retired White House butler who served First Families from Truman through Reagan but had lived to see a man of his own race elected to the Presidency. “Inspired by” means most of story is fictionalized, but screenwriter Danny Strong has done an excellent job of distilling 60 years of this nation’s history and weaving it throughout the movie. It does a better job with history than movies such as Braveheart, which had William Wallace interacting with Robert the Bruce in spite of them living a hundred years apart. For those who lived through the 1950s and 1960s, many of the scenes are all too familiar.

Strong also has a small role as a journalist on a Freedom Rider bus. He’d begun in Hollywood as a child actor, and had a brief walk-on role on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that eventually grew into a major supporting character. Since 2008 he’s made a name for himself as a screenwriter, doing the HBO movies “Recount” and “Game Changer” (winning an Emmy for the later). He’s doing the screenplay for the final “Hunger Games” movies, Mockingjay Pts. 1 & 2, and has been announced as the writer for next Dan Brown/Robert Langdon movie, The Lost Symbol.

Lee Daniels entered the film industry in a roundabout way. After graduating from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO, Lee moved to Los Angeles and worked for a nursing agency. By the time he was 21, he’d started his own agency which he eventually sold for a good profit and then became a casting director and a manager. After a decade and a half, he formed his own production company and produced his first movie, 2001’s Monster’s Ball. In 2009 he produced and directed the acclaimed Precious.

Forest Whitaker is excellent as Gaines, and he is ably assisted by Oprah Winfrey. In the White House scenes, only the subtlest reactions can be shown, but Whitaker, along with Gooding and Kravitz, can communicate a monologue with a slightly raised eyebrow. The scenes between Whitaker and Oyelowo provide much of the dramatic tension of the story.

With The Butler, the 2013 Oscar Season is now open.

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