Thoughts on Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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For movie buffs these days, it can be a bit of an ordeal to get friends and family members out to the theaters. In large part, this is just because various other kinds of entertainment have become so accessible from mobile devices and at home. Here are a few examples of what we mean:

  • Services like Showtime On Demand offer high quality TV shows, mini series, and even very recent films, all in the comfort of your own home. Watching these sorts of programs on television or even through a mobile device can just be less of a hassle than getting out to the theater!
  • Online gaming has expanded in so many ways that people can now keep themselves entertained for days on end on a computer screen. One great example is the growth of online gambling. Visit the Betfair Arcade and you’ll find a massive games library of arcade and casino options that allow players to spend real money on games of both chance and skill online. This is merely one way in which gaming has improved to the point that it can be preferable to spend a few hours playing online, as opposed to at the theater.
  • And then, of course, there are e-books. The ability to search for, download, and read a brand new thriller on a Nook is just too convenient for most fans of fiction to pass up. This is good, in the sense that it’s gotten more people to read – but again, it draws some attention away from the cinema!

While all of these means of popular entertainment are fun and accessible, however, there comes a movie every now and then that just demands our attention, and calls for us to head out to the theater for a bit of “old school” entertainment. And “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is just such a film.

At a glance, this movie looks like a pretentious, overreaching onslaught of 20th century American history coming from a director so arrogant that he required his name be listed in the title. Before we start in on the film itself, let’s address that distracting issue. The movie title, apparently, was not born of egoism or arrogance, but was rather a last-minute pivot resulting from Warner Bros. claim that they owned the title “The Butler,” because of a 1916 short film. True story.

On to the movie itself, it initially sounded like it might have been better suited as a mini-series depicting the largely fictionalized narrative of an African-American butler who served 8 U.S. presidents through the heart of the civil rights movement. But, somewhat shockingly, the story works beautifully as a film. From James Marsden’s dead-on JFK voice, to Liev Schreiber’s amusing take on Lyndon B. Johnson, to Alan Rickman’s shocking transformation into a convincing Ronald Reagan, the movie manages to show convincing glimpses of each president’s policy and character without either skimming or dwelling on any in particular. And through it all, Forest Whitaker delivers the year’s first performance that seems absolutely certain of an Oscar nomination.

The movie begins showing Whitaker’s character, Cecil Gaines, growing up in various roles of servitude in the south before making his way – alone, without family – to Washington, D.C. to work in a high-end restaurant. Gaines starts a family with his wife Gloria (the surprisingly excellent Oprah Winfrey), and makes a respectable life for himself. However, his capabilities as a server don’t go unnoticed, and he is ultimately contacted by the White House, and brought in to serve as a butler.

So begins a 20+ year odyssey through presidents, and through the civil rights movement, for Gaines. As he serves different men occupying the White House, the real world issues that those men govern over are illuminated by the involvement of Gaines’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he becomes an activist. And as Gaines attempts to balance his job, his family, and the generation-altering issues of the time, a truly remarkable life unfolds on screen.

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