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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Lee Daniels, 2013



The butler’s real name was Eugene Allen—and he was a remarkable man who served eight U.S. Presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, while working on the White House household staff from 1952 to 1986, rising from pantry man to maître d’hôtel and chief butler. But in the deservedly popular movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, he’s become the fictionalized Cecil Gaines (staunchly and sensitively played by Forest Whitaker), and he and his family (including Oprah Winfrey in a bravura performance as Cecil’s battler of a wife Gloria) become a microcosm of the African-American experience from 1926, and the era of segregation, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, to 2008, and the election of a black (or brown) man, Barack Obama, as President of the United States. I like Eugene, from what I know of him (which is admittedly not much), and I like Cecil too, as Whitaker so sympathetically embodies him. And I like this movie, even if it does have 41 producers.

The Butler is a stretch, and a sentimental exaggeration of course. More happens to the Gaines family, including their two diverse sons, radical activist Louis (David Olewoyo) and Vietnam warrior Charlie (Elijah Kelley)—than you could reasonably expect from a small city full of butlers and their offspring. Among the historical milestones that at least some of the Gaineses catch or witness or participate in, are Eisenhower’s Little Rock showdown with Gov. Faubus, the freedom rides, the sit-ins, the signing of the Civil Rights act, the ascendancy and later assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, and the rise of the black power movement—as well as intimate moments in the lives of Presidents (and their wives) Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John and Jackie Kennedy (James Marsden and Minka Kelly), Nixon (John Cusack), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda).

The casting of the presidents proves that Daniels has guts— and, some of the time, it pays off. Williams gives Ike one of his best pixie smiles (an “I Like Ike“ smile), Cusack’s Tricky Dick does some tricky politicking with the serving staff, Schreiber (very effective) shows us one of LBJ’s infamous in-the-crapper orations; and you’ll be surprised at how well Rickman gets Reagan, and Jane gets Nancy. It’s an all-star ensemble, of which Whitaker, careful, easy, sometimes a bit tormented underneath, remains the star, More often than not, his perfectly dressed and appointed and mannered Cecil manages, with the utmost discretion, to slip in a wise hint or sly nudge, or even just some kind of emanation, pointing in the right racial-political direction, while serving and softly bantering with his bosses, who just happen to be the most powerful leaders in the Free World. Who knew?

Cecil, whose life here may admittedly be over-packed with symbolism and Forrest Gump-ish incident, is still as likable and human and poignant as Forest Whitaker can make him—which is extremely likable and empathetic indeed. And though Cecil’s fictional story—which starts when he sees his mother raped and his father murdered by a racist rich kid (whom we should dislike, violently, as we should all racists) and climaxes with Obama’s victory—may be Hollywood-ized, it’s also meaningful and ambitious, and, in a big movie Oscar nominee kind of way, it’s moving.

The Butler is a mixture of historical pageant, political parable and domestic drama. And Cecil has less success at home than in the White House. He shows less power and control with his free-spirited household diva wife Gloria, or with his politically adventurous older son Louis, who, out in the field, gets a peoples‘ eye view of those historical landmarks and big events. Still, no one can (or should) top the show-stopping Oprah—and we can tell that Cecil and Louis are on a rocky path together when they get into a dinner-table dispute about whether Sidney Poitier is the white man’s “good” African-American. Here, I side with the older generation. Maybe Poitier was, to some degree, especially likable to whites. But I enjoyed both common man Gump and bridge-builder Poitier (especially in In the Heat of the Night), which makes it stand to reason, I guess, that I’d like much of The Butler, too—in common with a lot of last weekend’s mass audience.

Granted: The gussied-up history purveyed by director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strongbased on Will Haygood’s Washington Post article about the real Eugene Allen—is movie-ized and, to a degree, kitschified. But so, to tell the truth, is much of the American “history” purveyed in the great historical movies of John Ford—like, for example Young Mr. Lincoln, where young Illinois lawyer Abe (Hank Fonda) wins an improbable legal victory in an improbable trial for an improbable poor family, exposing an improbably available killer in an Agatha Christie sort of climax and later marching off up that improbable hill yonder right into the Lincoln Memorial. Yet, despite all improbability, Young Mr. Lincoln is a great film—and no small part of its poetry and power comes from that very magical unlikelihood, a narrative device that Ford, like many of the best popular artists, is able to make magically real—at least for a moment. (By the way, I like Agatha Christie too.)

And—Oscar-mongering or not (Does anybody ever complain about Pulitzer-mongering?)—I certainly like Whitaker and Winfrey, and their boys, and their Presidents, and their First Ladies, and all the players and bystanders of this heartfelt tall tale—all the black and white (including Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and many, many others) and the big emotional moments and familiar people that crowd before us on Lee Daniels’ highly theatrical but always entertaining stage. I also think it‘s a salutary event that the box-office wars were won last weekend not by a violent or truly unbelievable show with a huge budget and a high body count, but by this more modestly budgeted (despite that cast) movie that at least tried to be more real, more true, more idealistic about life—and, just as Eugene Allen and Cecil Gaines did, to serve the people and well.

By the way, no reflection on Lee Daniels, but I’d love to have seen the movie that Spike Lee—reportedly an earlier directorial choice for the movie—would have made of this. “Cause I like him too.

The Butler has been dedicated to producer Laura Ziskin, who worked long on the project and died before its release.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon