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Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

On a cotton plantation in 1920s Georgia, after his mother (Mariah Carey) is raped and his father (David Banner) is killed standing up to the rapist (Alex Pettyfer), a young boy (Aml Ameen) is taken in as a house servant by the rapist's mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Thus begins a long journey of serving the white man that eventually leads to the White House as butler (Forest Whitaker) from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan administration. What could have been a heavy handed treatise on racism becomes, under director Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) deft guidance, a stirring odyssey through several decades of America's growth. Oh sure, we've seen it all before: civil rights movements, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam war etc. but this is no FORREST GUMP! Daniels is even handed here, the film's African-American protagonists are far from the noble Sidney Poitier archetype and even the film's white racists like Redgrave's crotchety Southern matriarch are allowed to show glimmers of humanity. That Whitaker gives an outstanding performance is no surprise. He's simply one of the best and most reliable actors working in film today. It's Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker's chain smoking, gin guzzling, sex hungry wife that's the surprise. It's her best performance yet! Sadly, Daniels who kept his previous films like PRECIOUS and THE PAPERBOY edgy to its last frames, goes all huggy "I love you" sentimental toward the end. The large ensemble cast is impeccable, even the famous actors playing cameos essentially, give us real people not star turns. Among them: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, James Marsden (X-MEN) as JFK, Alan Rickman as Reagan and Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley (HAIRSPRAY), Clarence Williams III and Yaya DaCosta who, if there's any justice, will go far.

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