Saturday, January 4, 2014

"The Butler"

 2 / 5 

Like a civil-rights version of Forrest Gump, The Butler focuses on one character's journey through a cavalcade of historical figures, but lacks the innovative visual effects flair of the feel-good 1994 hokum.

Forrest Gump had visual-effects trickery to keep us entertained, but The Butler lacks that kind of hook, substituting celebrity cameos as its title character works as a quiet, noble servant during eight White House administrations.  He watches Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan (Ford and Carter are given montage lip service) struggle with civil rights issues, beginning with U.S. segregation and ending with South African apartheid.

From the start, Cecil is told to keep his mouth shut -- he's just a servant, after all, and would do well to remember the lessons he learned down on the golden-hued plantation, where his mother was raped and his father shot right before his eyes.

That's pretty powerful stuff, but The Butler feels overly sanitized, careful to express only a stately, metered anger about the way black Americans have been treated through the years.  It's neither pretty enough to be offensive or messy enough to be shocking -- it's all as carefully, mindfully scrubbed and sanitized for your protection, like a high-school textbook or a theme-park attraction.

Oddly, though the movie is called The Butler, Cecil isn't even close to the most interesting character in the movie.  If anything, his static stoicism makes him dull; the only real drama in his life is whether his bored, restless wife (Oprah Winfrey) will succumb to her increasing drug and alcohol problem, brought about by long nights waiting for Cecil to get home from the White House.

Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the character who really sees the action in The Butler, but I guess The Butler's Son would have sounded too much like a sequel.  Louis enrolls at Fisk University in Tennessee just in time to take part in the Woolworth sit-in, become a Freedom Rider, travel to Selma, be part of Martin Luther King's inner circle, hear Malcom X speak, become a Black Panther, and ultimately be elected to a Congressional seat just as the anti-Apartheid movement is coming of age.  I'm not sure when the kid had any time to study, but he certainly plays a part in history.

Meanwhile, Cecil and his wife hear from Louis every so often, exactly when the current president needs some sage, on-the-sly advice from the man who's always at his right hand, pouring tea or clearing dishes.  Cecil becomes a beloved member of the White House staff, but is always perturbed that the black staff and the white staff are treated unequally, though he fails to make noise about that for thirty years or more.  I got the sense Louis would have acted up a little bit earlier.

Everything is by-the-textbook in The Butler, including the swelling, string-infused musical score, the careful camerawork and the prosthetic nose on John Cusack's face when he plays Richard Nixon.  (John Cusack as Richard Nixon?  Give the casting director extra points for imagination.)

The clothes, including Cecil's bow-tie, change to suit the decades, and as The Butler languidly moves toward the present day (you can guess everything Cecil says about Barack Obama being elected president), there's only one really dynamic moment, when Cecil finally has enough of Louis's militant Black Power antics and kicks him out of the house.  That's precisely the kind of real drama The Butler needed.

Mostly, we get to play "Guess the Actor" underneath all that crazy makeup: Is that really Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower?  How in the world did the director persuade Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan?  (She's quite good in the role, actually.)

The Butler will likely find a long and deserved place in middle-school American history classes.  It's a great starting point for a conversation with someone who doesn't know a lot about the civil rights movement, and it's impossible not to find blood-boiling drama in scenes of college students being pelted with coffee and ketchup as they try to get served at a restaurant counter, or to elicit a shock by showing the KKK in action or the Selma race riots.

It's just all tremendously pat and not particularly moving.  The territory has been covered much more effectively by other movies, but I give The Butler a lot of credit for trying.

Viewed January 2, 2014 -- On DVD

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