Lee Daniels’ The Butler (The Weinstein Company, 2013)

This film was a welcome relief for this movie goer, and I use the term movie goer very loosely. I would like to go more often, but the usual fair of superhero, space aliens and sophomoric humor has kept me away for the most part. I was thrilled to finally find a film that would provide gripping drama and provoke thought.

The story is of a black man who served in the White House through the tenure of eight U.S. Presidents – from Truman to Reagan. During those 34 years we see the progress of a nation with the film culminating in the election of the first African-American president.
What did I like about the film? First of all, the story line causes the audience to both shake their head at the cruelty of human beings and to swell within at the dignity of a remarkable life.

The struggle for civil rights in much of the nation and in the south in particular is viewed through the lens of one African-American family. Scenes are set in cotton fields, lunch counters and The White House. Historical struggles are depicted in Mississippi, Selma, Birmingham, Little Rock and Memphis. Various methods of opposition to civil injustice range from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X to the Black Panthers.

I also liked the acting of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. Playing the butler and his wife, both gave riveting performances. With Whitaker in particular, he lets the audience feel what he is feeling. He is a master.

Upon the strength of the story and these two actors, the movie rolls along in dramatic fashion. What was surprising was that in the midst of this drama, well-written comedic lines surprise the audience into outright laughter.

What did I know like about the movie? In the case of this movie, my dislikes are in the same categories of my likes. First of all, the story line is made to feel biographical. It is true that a remarkable man served for those eight presidents in the role of butler. In the movie his name, his family and many of the stories are simply fictional. I don’t mind a little creative license, but a full rewrite leaves me feeling cheated.

In the movie the butler lives through the changing landscape of civil rights in one way. His son in a drastically different way. However, this son was purely fictional. It would have been nearly impossible for one young man to be in the midst of so many historical situations.

My other dislike was the casting for presidents and those surrounding them. John Cusack is a fine actor, but having him portray Richard Nixon was simply ridiculous. At no time did I feel like I was watching Nixon. And Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan? Please.

With those flaws Lee Daniels’ The Butler will not make it to the top of my favorite films list. But enough value exists that I do recommend that folks go and see it.

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