Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History served up in bold slices

It takes liberties with the real man's life, but Lee Daniels' The Butler works as a tumultuous summary of the Civil Rights era.

August isn't a bad month for critics to stop paying attention to movies. As we inch toward Labor Day, the releases tend to have the feel of filler. A look at the multiplex schedule makes you wonder whether Hollywood isn't marking time until the Oscar-bound big boys lumber into view.

All of this by way of saying that I've been traveling, and haven't seen my usual quota of movies, a situation that in late August can be seen as more reprieve than deprivation.

Was I bereft that I missed the preview screening of Kick-Ass 2? If so, it was only because airline re-routing had condemned my wife and her quick-to-grumble husband to an interminable day of schedule shuffling, plane delays and airborne discomfort.

Upon my return to Denver, I decided that there was only one movie I needed to see to fill in my otherwise empty dance card: Lee Daniels' The Butler, the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as a butler in the White House from the time of President Eisenhower until the reign of Ronald -- a.k.a. the Great Communicator -- Reagan.

I should confess that I'm not much of a Daniels' fan. I didn't jump on the Precious (2009) bandwagon, and I found 2012's The Paperboy to be mired in excess bordering on hysteria, a wallowing and sweaty movie that, at one point, saw Nicole Kidman's character urinate on Zac Efron's character, one of the few times I hoped that special effects had indeed supplanted any attempt at realism.

I was much relieved to discover that The Butler -- though vividly realized -- represents a toned-down version of Daniels-style drama.

First, my problem:
Too many years in journalism have, I think, stunted my imagination. When I read about the divergence between fact and fiction in a movie that's depicting a slice of history, I tend to feel a bit deflated. Look, I know there can be a crucial difference between truth and fact, but too many years in newsrooms have made me partial to historical drama that limits distortion to mild flirtation.

To the point: Daniels and screenwriter Daniel Strong, who also wrote HBO's Game Change, have taken considerable liberties with their main character, played with admirable reserve by Forest Whitaker.

Gaines was inspired by the real-life story of a man named Eugene Allen, who worked for 34 years in the White House. In the movie, Gaines' oldest son (ably played by David Oyelowo)becomes contemptuous of his father's calling during the Civil Rights era.

Oyelowo's Louis is a convenient fictional creation, a young man who makes the transition from a hopeful freedom rider to a resolute member of the Black Panther party, an arc that describes the historical backdrop against which the story unfolds and which adds a dose of generational tension to the story.

During the movie, Gaines' wife, brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey, has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard), presumably because she's upset and lonely. Her duty-obsessed husband isn't around much. Evidently, the real butler's wife was loyal and devoted.

In the movie, the couple's youngest son (Elijah Kelley) dies in Vietnam. In real life, the Gaines' only son returned from Vietnam and went on to find employment in the State Department.

I've gotten all of this from an Aug. 16 article in Time; I repeat highlights of that story more to reveal my own bias than to debunk the movie, which -- in the broadest terms -- is successful.

And, yes, I understand the approach. Daniels uses Gaines' personal history as a point of expansion, a spine that allows him to tell a story that's bigger and more important than one man's life.

In taking this fictionalized look at a man who served in the White House, Daniels also charts the sweep of the Civil Rights movement, and he makes effective use of news footage that seems no less shocking now than it did during the heyday of a grassroots movement that changed the United States.

Moroever, only a couple of scenes -- an explosive argument at a dinner table and a pointless interlude involving Mrs. Gaines' dalliance with her neighbor -- push the movie into what looks like familiar, i.e., over-amped, Daniels' territory.

More often than not, though, the rough candor in Daniels' style serves the screenplay, which won't be mistaken for anyone's idea of a finesse job. Right from its start, The Butler makes bold points boldly, which may be precisely what the material demands.

Now, some side comments: It's amazing to me that a personality as identifiable as Winfrey was able to convince us that she's the whiskey tippling, sometimes resentful wife of a man who learned the butler's trade at an early age.

Young Gaines was brought into "the big house" by a racist Georgia woman (Vanessa Redgrave in a small role) who schooled Gaines in domestic servitude after her son raped the boy's mother and shot his father.

Many presidents appear during the course of the story, some effectively portrayed, some less so. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower, although he looks like a dead ringer for Harry Truman. James Marsden capture's JFK's voice, but looks too much like a frat boy to be entirely convincing. Alan Rickman makes a surprisingly good Reagan. Ditto for Liev Schreiber as the blunt Lyndon B. Johnson.

Whoever had the idea of casting John Cusack as Nixon probably thinks Silicon Valley is best known for its fine macrame. Perhaps Jane Fonda's inevitably ironic appearance as Nancy Reagan makes up for it.

So what the hell am I saying here? Yes, I felt a bit of a letdown when I began reading about the real White House butler who inspired the movie and whose life was first written about by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood.

But watching The Butler is another story. Daniels evokes a strong feeling for the chaotic blend of horror and idealism that marked a period when some of the best people in the country were -- as Martin Luther King famously said -- trying to bend the moral arc of the universe toward a higher plane of justice.

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