The opinions and views expressed here are those of our guest bloggers and are not necessarily those of the Annapolis Film Festival.
By Beth Rubin
Ken Burns meets Forrest Gump in the bio-pic, “The Butler,” written by Danny Strong (“Game Change”) and directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”). The seed for the full-length drama germinated from a 2008 Washington Post article by Will Haygood, about White House butler Eugene Allen who served eight presidents, beginning with Ike in 1952. In this fictionalized, fast-paced film, we meet Cecil Gaines, a deus ex machina for presenting a compressed version of the civil rights movement. For that alone, the film (even when it deviates from the factual or plausible) should be required viewing— for anyone who wasn’t around in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and as a reminder for those of us who were.
Young Cecil winds up in the White House mess, with its all-black staff and plantation model, after enduring unspeakable trauma and humiliation living on a Georgia cotton farm and working in a southern hotel. But he keeps taking it—his face, a blank slate; his voice, steady. In fact, he enjoys his subservient role, to the consternation of his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). One son, Louis (David Oyelowo), joins the civil rights movement, creating a widening schism between father and son while the other, “good” son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley) does all the right things and fades into the wallpaper of the Gaines home before meeting a tragic end.
Like Forrest Gump, activist Louis is front and center for every major civil rights event, never missing a sit-in, Freedom Ride, or Black Panther rally. This guy gets around! Hell, he’s even with MLK at the Lorraine Motel when King is assassinated.
The acting, top to bottom, is as good as it gets. Winfrey shines as the loving, steadfast, hard-drinking and chain-smoking wife who wishes her husband worked normal hours. Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as a somnolent Ronald Reagan shine. Jane Fonda’s cameo performance as Nancy Reagan is spot on. (One has to wonder what Nancy Reagan thinks of Hanoi Jane’s interpretation.)
The Butler is very good entertainment. But leave your nitpickers at the popcorn stand.
Beth Rubin is a longtime Annapolis writer-author and film enthusiast who writes frequently about the arts. www.bethrubinauthor.com