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The Butler: Michael Dequina Film Review

TheButler_youngLadServes

Written by Michael Dequina © 2013

Upon the most brief and superficial of glances, it’s easy, if not somewhat understandable, to approach Lee Daniels’ The Butler with some trepidation.

After all, history be damned, another high profile Hollywood film about African-Americans doing domestic service work?  But to dismiss the film off hand is to not give director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong their proper due for the value of the story they tell–and not necessarily speaking in terms of its notable fact-based story: that of a White House butler who served under seven presidents from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The fact that said butler, here in fictionalized form named Cecil Gaines (played for most of the movie by Forest Whitaker, with a strong assist from Michael Rainey Jr. and Aml Ameen as younger incarnations), was a witness to such revolutionary eras of socio-political change, particularly for African-Americans, in such close proximity to the nation’s commanders-in-chief is indeed remarkable.  However, for all the monumental signpost events touched on and recognizable actors taking on the roles of various iconic figures (such as, for a start, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman are seen as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, respectively; Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King; Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), what ultimately registers and resonates most strongly is *not* the film’s brisk and showy tour of 20th Century American history, particularly in terms of racial politics.

Where Daniels and Strong truly engage is in the uncommonly seen story and experience of a late-in-life self-actualization, following the intimate, gradual internal journey as Cecil slowly, inevitably grows away and out from the comfortable silence of servitude to an awakening and awareness of his own value, place, and identity as an individual in the world and, above all else, within his own family.   But this is all painted in a more complex way than merely an arc of a silent bystander discovering his voice and strength.  Rather, it’s one in allowing his strength to develop and evolve with the times; one witnesses how adopting such an outwardly passive role from an early age was a necessary and rather brave survival tactic in the era of his youth, especially after witnessing the brutal loss of his father (a briefly seen but effective David Banner) as a child; and as times progress, so do prevailing attitudes shift from one of remaining in sheltered safety to daring to take the risk of proactive self-expression.

Serving as both a counterpoint and unexpected complement to Cecil’s journey is the rising political consciousness of his eldest son Louis (a terrific David Oyelowo).  His more militant trajectory naturally causes conflict within the more traditional values of Gaines household, but if Cecil is able to ultimately take from his son inspiration to be more assertive, Louis learns from his father’s example that one can still fight the existing power without compromising his own by being constructive rather than destructive.

As Cecil’s loyal but often neglected wife Gloria, Oprah Winfrey reminds that not for nothing did she first win major widespread attention as an actress, and her natural empathy that has made her such a multimedia phenomenon over the decade’s works to her advantage in this return to the screen.   If some of her darker struggles, such as her oft-mentioned but only momentarily seen struggles with alcohol, are somewhat glossed over, Winfrey effortlessly connects the viewer to those ups and downs.  But no one connects as strongly, powerfully as Whitaker. Cecil is a deceptively simple and exceedingly difficult part to pull off, what with his relatively few words and placid inaction for most of the film; but appropriately for a film that follows a lead character whose largely a witness, Whitaker’s ever-observing, ever-expressive eyes tell the tale of how he actively processes, thinks, and feels even if outwardly he may appear as nothing more, as his job requires, than a virtually invisible bystander.

Daniels’s measured, deceptively unadorned direction works in a similar fashion.  Far removed from the brash, in-your-face, go-for-broke approach that has largely characterized the films he’s thus far either directed or  produced, he exhibits a mature restraint not only in terms of his own body of work but in terms of decades-spanning historical films, with broader melodrama often sidestepped in favour of a more straightforward,  matter-of-fact depiction.  If, as the film bounces from historical event to historical event, this may feel somewhat routine as a moment-to-moment to viewing experience, it effectively places the viewer squarely in Cecil’s literal and figurative vantage point–not only as a fly-on-the-wall observer to the stream of events, but also how the effect of the experiences build to a far-from-routine cumulative catharsis that one could not so easily foresee. Much like the butler by the end of his film journey, a still, silent viewing audience is moved, perhaps to a surprising degree, by the totality of the entire experience, and maybe even enlightened and inspired by discoveries not so much about the world than what the events of it illuminate about oneself.

Michael Dequina
The Movie Report: http://themoviereport.com


The Butler is in UK Cinemas Now
More info Here

Academy Conversations: The Cast & Director of The Butler in Conversation