Kennebec Journal Staff
The movie is called "Lee Daniels' The Butler," because it seems that back in 1916 there was a silent film called "The Butler." Isn't that silly?
So here we have the much ballyhooed movie about a butler in the White House, one who served seven presidents. In the movie he's called Cecil Gaines, played with great power and silent dignity by Oscar actor Forest Whitaker.
Gaines is fashioned after one Eugene Allen, a black man who grew up on a Georgia plantation. In the movie, written by Danny Strong, Cecil sees his mother (Mariah Carey) raped and father murdered by a white plantation "Massa." He is then taken in and raised by the murderer's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) -- shades of Flannery O'Connor.
Was this the real Eugene Allen's story? It's not clear.
Cecil eventually runs away from the comforts of the plantation, and gets some work polishing shoes in an elegant hotel in Washington, D.C., where he grows up under the tutoring of a benevolent old man, (a great Clarence Williams III.)
Eventually, Cecil is spotted by a White House "servant scout," and hired to be a butler-in-training in the White House, where he joins some other Oscar folks: Cuba Gooding Jr. for one, who is still a lovely actor.
Cecil marries Miss Gloria (the estimable breath-taking entrepreneur, Oprah Winfrey, who is still, despite her wanderings into little-screen show biz, a damn good actor) and settles into a life of white-gloved servitude.
Cecil and Gloria raise two sons: Charlie, who inherits his father's straight-edged discipline and eventually winds up in Vietnam, and Louis, a really good actor, David Oyelowo. We know at once that Louis is going to be trouble. Louis has the job of walking us through Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and right up to putting on the beret of the Black Panthers.
Louis's activism is not Cecil's only problem. Wife Gloria, finding herself second chair to Cecil's every growing attention to his job, takes to the bottle and a tawdry brief affair with a neighbor and family friend (Terrence Howard.)
The movie then takes on the role of a painful, but splendid time travel through black American history. Daniels films the southern student sit ins with Louis and his girlfriend, in scary detail.
Meanwhile, back at the White House, Cecil climbs from under stairs at the Pennsylvania Avenue "Downton Abbey" to head butler, pouring scotch for several heavy-drinking presidents in the Oval Office, where he is required to stand silently and motionless while world decisions are discussed.
Here is where the casting gets silly, the silliest of which is Robin Williams doing Dwight Eisenhower. Robin has always been a very good natural actor, but was Ed Harris not available?
John Cusack pops in downstairs in the kitchen as, OMG, Richard Nixon, stealing goodies from the pastry wagon. Later on, with his feet up on the desk, his dialogue is thickened with the well-known Nixon racism. Cusack phones it in.
James Marsden gives us yet another pale Jack Kennedy. No one seems to get Jack right, so stop doing it.
Liev Schreiber ("Ray Donovan") does an hilarious LBJ. He does get it right, giving political advice as he sits on the toilet with his beagles wrapped around his feet.
Apparently no one wanted to play Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, two of the White Houses's biggest failures. Can't blame them. (Daniels uses news clips).
The trophy for worst couple at the prom, goes to Britain's brilliant Alan Rickman as (SAY WHAT?) Ronald Reagan, the first role he ever botched. Is that Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan? Can they do that?
In the end, it's Forest Whitaker and Oprah's movie. I'm sure they'll be up for a lot of awards this winter.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler." Dinner is served.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.Tweet
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