In light of his first two directorial effortsthe incredibly bleak Precious and the tawdry, drive-in homage The PaperboyLee Daniels' The Butler is a surprising move toward the mainstream. The film, a sort of CliffsNotes overview of the civil-rights movement seen from the vantage point of a silent witness to historyan African-American White House butler who served under seven presidentsis a large-scale, middle-of-the-road work that is entertaining and moving in the way that many other movies about the struggle for race equality have been, with one major difference: Daniels' film is told entirely from the perspective of the Black characters.
Unlike The Help, The Secret Life of Bees, Mississippi Burning and other countless movies of this ilk, there are no white best friends, no white children and no white sympathizers who relate the story of the struggle of their Black counterparts. One has to reach back to Spielberg's The Color Purple in 1985 to find a mainstream movie about Black history told from the same perspective. That rarity alone is entirely refreshing and earns Daniels' movie a pass that its often mawkish and stereotypical moments wouldn't otherwise deserve (though its performances greatly help it).
"We have no use for politics in the White House," Cecil Gaines is told upon entering service under Eisenhower in 1957 by his tough major domo of a boss. And in the ensuing years that's exactly the dictum that Cecil follows. Before that we have seen Cecil's unexpected journey to that life-changing moment. The character, beautifully essayed by Forrest Whitaker in a performance of incredible grace mixed with flashes of fire, is based on the real life of Eugene Allen. Daniels and co-screenwriter Danny Strong embroider Allen's unique story with inventions that unnecessarily push the envelopealthough they are never less than entertaining.
The movie begins with a melodramatic sequence that is jaw-dropping and stereotypical with the young Cecil Gains watching as his father is murdered in a Georgia cotton field after protesting after the sneering white plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) has had the gall to rape his wife (Mariah Carey) in earshot of his helpless father and the other workers. Vanessa Redgrave takes momentary pity on the boy and moves him into the house, teaching him the art of service in the process. As the years pass, Cecil's talents eventually bring him to the attention of a White House aide de camp, and his decades-long gig at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue commences.
Once ensconced in the new job, Daniels' movie begins to incorporate a great deal of welcome humor. Cecil's fellow workersthe hilariously profane sexual braggart played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and the more cautious but equally fun Lenny Kravitzand Cecil's wife and neighbors offer relief from the painful reality of the civil-rights struggle. Oprah Winfrey, returning to movies after a 16-year absence, is especially welcome as Cecil's tart-tongued, ever-patient wife, Gloria. Gloria is a sister under the skin to Winfrey's Sofia, the character she played in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Color Purple.
Gloria is big funa drinker and smoker in a sky-high beehive dancing to infectious soul records on the phonograph, temporarily playing footsie with next door neighbor lothario Howard (Terrence Howard) to stave off boredom. She's also full of piss and vinegar as she waits around for Cecil to return his attentions to her, and to at last invite her to visit the White House. When the invitation finally comescourtesy of Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda, in the best of the high-wattage actors playing the presidents and their wives)it's almost as emotionally satisfying as the moment when Cecil finally sees the light as far as his eldest son's radical politics are concerned.
The contrast of Cecil's conservative views with that of his militant son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who goes from being arrested as a Freedom Rider to becoming a member of the Black Panthers. This helps to offer a double-sided look at the movement from the late '60s into the early '70s, the bulk of the picture's 132-minute running time. Including Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schrieber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, respectively (Ford and Carter are skipped over), will no doubt draw in audiences. However, most are reduced to a couple of cameo scenes, gone before one has a chance to move beyond taking in the make-up and vocal inflections each brings to these historical figures, with the result being not much more than stunt casting.
And yetgiven the film's unique Black perspective, historical sweep (scattershot as it sometimes is), as well as the often heartfelt performances, Lee Daniels' The Butler certainly satisfies while bringing this talented filmmaker a shot at bringing his decided queer sensibilities to a much larger audience the next time out.
Of related interest: The Intruder, a little-known black-and-white 1962 drama starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, is screening Wed., Aug. 14, at the Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park Rd. The movie follows Shatner's character, a white supremacist with a huckster's charm, as he travels to the Deep South in order to fan the flames of racial intolerance and stop integration of the local school. This was a personal projecta rare onefrom independent producer/director Roger Corman and the behind-the-scenes story of the troubled filming is as fascinating as what's on the screen. Presented in 35mm (as usual) by the Northwest Chicago Film Society; www.northwestchicagofilmsociety.org
Jodie Foster is no stranger to thrillers. Currently in theaters as the villain in the dark yet elegant sci-fi thriller Elysium, Foster also starred in director David Fincher's thriller Panic Room in 2002, albeit in a very different kind of role. As the fiercely protectiveand very intelligentmother of a teenage diabetic (Kristen Stewart), Foster plays a recently separated woman who uses her gray cells to outwit a gang of thugs desperately trying to get at her and the daughter, locked in the title enclosure during a botched home-invasion robbery. Fincher's inventive use of the camera, considering the claustrophobic setting and Foster's terse performance, are must-sees. The film is being screened as part of a month long celebration of Fincher's movies at the Gene Siskel Center, 164 N. State St., on Sat., Aug. 17, and Thursday, Aug. 22. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
Openly gay French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan's debut film, 2009's I Killed My Mother, is finally getting a U.S. DVD release (courtesy of Kino Lorber). The movie stars Dolan as a sophisticated, tantrum-throwing teenager battling daily with his tacky but fierce single mother (the rapturous Ann Dorval) while hiding his gay boyfriend from her in the process. Dolan's assured debut at age 21 (he was 16 when he wrote it) has launched a critically hailed film career spanning four queer-themed movies to date. (His latest, Tom at the Farm, will debut at the Toronto Film Fest later this month.) Highly recommended.