Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,
This weekend I have a movie for you about which I have mixed emotions. It's Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013, Rated PG-13, Available on DVD).
I guess we should begin with an explanation of the title. It seems that about two bazillion years ago someone made a movie called The Butler, which has long since disappeared. But because The Butler existed once upon a time, according to the Internet Movie Database, the following occurred: Warner Bros. Pictures released the 1916 silent short film The Butler (1916), and filed a claim with the MPAA to rename this film. The MPAA allowed the Weinstein Company to add Daniels' name in front of the title, under the condition that his name was "75% the size of The Butler". On July 23, 2013, the distributor unveiled a revised film poster, with the title "Lee Daniels' The Butler".
"The Butler" is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). As a child, his sharecropper father is murdered by a white man. It's unclear to me if the woman played by Vanessa Redgrave is a member of the white man's family or a caretaker in charge of the servants. She takes in young Cecil to make him a "house nigger". He's told he'll learn to serve so that no one will notice he's in the room.
When Cecil becomes a young adult, he takes off for greener pastures and becomes a valet at a swanky hotel. Eventually, he's hired as a butler for The White House. He begins his tenure there during the Eisenhower administration and leaves during the Reagan administration. He's married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and they have two sons. As Gaines serves in The White House, American history swirls around his family, strongly affecting them.
At first, I felt bored with this movie. Forest Whitaker at age 52 and Oprah Winfrey at 60 look kind of old to be the parents of two young teens. Toward the conclusion of the movie when Mr. and Mrs. Gaines are elderly, Oprah's heavy make-up and grey hair look ridiculous. When Cecil Gaines first enters The White House staff room, another butler played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. tells a very crude "joke". The audio is removed at the end of the joke, but what he says is obvious. The joke is not at all necessary.
Oprah Winfrey plays her part over dramatically at times. For the most part, The Butler is just plain miscast. Why so many well-known people in small parts? They don't serve the film well. I felt shocked to see Robin Williams, of all people, playing Dwight Eisenhower. I laughed, and not because Williams is funny. John Cusack, with a strange prosthetic nose, is Richard Nixon. (Richard Nixon: I don't want to say anything negative about that Kennedy boy. I'm sure he's a real nice fellow. But do you really want that spoiled rich son-of-a-bitch fuck to be your next president?) Why is Mariah Carey young Cecil's mother? She doesn't even speak in the movie.
However, the point that bothers me the most is that The Butler is supposed to be based on a real butler in The White House – someone with a different name, who had one son. It's fine with me if the movie is dramatized, but if that's the case, don't say it's about a real person. I wonder how that man's family feels about some of the horrible behavior in this "fictional" family? I would be very upset if someone made a movie based on my life that portrayed me or a relative as an adulterous drunk, with a son who is arrested repeatedly.
But now, let's talk about why I like The Butler. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda make a surprisingly good Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Winfrey has one beautiful scene in which she defends her husband when he's derided by their militant son: Gloria Gaines: Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler.
The juxtaposition of life in the sheltered confines of The White House against the nearly insane tides of American politics is well done. Parts of the film are moving. Cecil Gaines has a triumph in one fight against "The Man" in The White House, and he succeeds with the assistance of Ronald Reagan.
I should add that a number of people seem to like The Butler much more than I do (based on IMDb responses), and some are unhappy that Winfrey wasn't nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
Should you let your children watch? Age 13 and younger, I say "No". Older teens can watch and it could be an especially good time for you to enlighten them about some aspects of American history. As always, I urge you to watch the movie first and then decide if your kids should see it. You might not want to explain what Gloria is up to with the neighbor. Maybe you're too young to know anything about The Black Panthers and wouldn't be able to elucidate that aspect of the movie.
Thus, Lee Daniels' The Butler earns The Janie Junebug Seal of Approval. Watching it is better than skipping it, unless you can't stand Oprah, but it's not good enough for my Highest Approval.
Infinities of love,