Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lee Daniel's The Butler - Review

Lee Daniels The Butler – Review

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" tells the story of a White House butler named Cecil Gaines whose early child hood is marred by both illiteracy and the brutal hardship of back breaking work as cotton pickers on a plantation in rural segregated Georgia with his father and mother.

Upon witnessing an unbearable event for anyone much less a child, the plantation owner takes young Cecil under her wing (so to speak) by teaching him what appears to be both a practical and suitable skill for Negroes at that time as a house servant. It is from this point we see young Mr. Gaines seize upon this misfortunate opportunity as a way to honing his new found trade into a highly marketable skill leading to his eventually securing rare employment at the nation’s White House as a butler where he served eight American presidents over three decades of his life.

LD’s The Butler may not be or end up being the best picture of the year; it is clearly one of the more moving films I have seen this year. And while the first 20 minutes of the film seemed to be a bit hasty, the remaining film is adroitly executed by maintaining its story telling to an even pace with a balance of genuine tenderness, human reflection, well timed clever intelligent humor and noted history.

I personally have a problem with any film that tries to sum up anyone’s entire life in a two hour time frame, especially in this unique case where Mr. Gaines story has so many major historic events that are filtered through his personal and professional life. Still, Director Daniels manages not only to pull it off skillfully he does so with a sweeping patient and sense of respect to all the principles involved whether they be historic by name or they operated in perpetual anonymous shadows. And so it is with his patience Daniels keeps this brave and determined mans story in steady focus throughout the film as we are witnesses to his life’s few small joys and his many quiet moments of torment and pain.

What I especially like about Daniels direction is he manages to revisit some all too well known brutal images of our racial past without being mean, vitriolic, spiteful or venomous about it. He doesn’t rub racial bigotry spitefully into the audiences face, instead he simply shows various images of it in such a way as to illustrate just enough of what these harsh events were about and to poignantly remind us of our country’s past without making any of the viewing audience to feel any need to withdrawal into guilt or react in rage. He’s uses these historic images with the expressed interest of connecting the overall story’s dots; meaningful historic dots if you will in such a tangential and respectful way as both a parallel backdrop to a nations tragedies and to Cecil’s life.   

It is way too early to talk about Oscar nominations with so many other films to come. But I would not be a bit surprised if in late January 2014 Forrest Whitaker is nominated as Best Actor, as he was simply immersed and amazingly so as both Cecil the individual man as well as the symbolic embodiment of national pain through a tumultuous period in our history. Also, Oprah Winfrey who plays his wife could get a Best Supporting nomination as well as she was splendid in her performance as his emotionally committed, but equally conflicted by the temptations of loneliness and alcohol as Cecil’s wife and devoted mother to their two boys. She from the very first moments of the film transitions with incredible ease away from her real life iconic figure we all know her for to a touching, uniquely funny and loving partner to Cecil’s story.

In addition, it has been along time since I could honestly say that I saw so many actors in one film that were nearly perfectly cast to round out the overall film, with especial attention given to some fine performances by Terrence Howard as the philandering neighbor, Daniel Oyelowo as the oldest son and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the head White House butler and family friend. Also, the cinematography was richly elegant looking as well as the wardrobe designs seemed to be especially proper in its detail and reflective of that period of time.

In the end LD The Butler is a sweet, gentle and moving film. But what makes this film uniquely special is it’s simplicity by telling a story of a single self made man, who while somewhat flawed was nevertheless a kind man diligently dedicating himself to over come his flaws by working daily with a keen sense of professional purpose inside the walls of the world’s most iconic symbol of democracy, freedom and equality and yet be wholly deprived of these very same virtues in every meaningful way.

Cecil Gaines story is the more shadowy low profile version to Jackie Robinson’s more high profile illuminated story. That being when w
e do hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, if given the chance to living out that wonderful creed than people like Cecil and others like him will be equally valued as people who are trustworthy and hard working too.

4 Stars

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