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The Butler Finds Urgency in the Conventional

At the movies, straightforward storytelling, the kind in which a director and his cast push a story forward in waves of action and feeling, has become so out of fashion it's almost avant-garde. Moviegoers, it seems, need to be cool: not too moved, not too surprised, not too impressed. We wouldn't want to be taken in, would we? We know we've seen it all before—even when we haven't.

We haven't seen a movie like Lee Daniels's The Butler. The world of mainstream film wasn't teeming with multigenerational sagas set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, nor is it rife with movies in which all the white actors—big ones—appear only in supporting roles.

The Butler—a sort of mini-history of late 20th-century black America as seen through the eyes of one longtime White House domestic worker, played by Forest Whitaker—is blunt where it needs to be. Sometimes it's too didactic or sentimental. But unlike Daniels's previous pictures, Precious and The Paperboy, it doesn't pretend to audacious storytelling. Daniels is that rare contemporary filmmaker who's not afraid of melodrama. The Butler is so old-school it feels modern: Stylistically, it could have been made 30 years ago, but its time is now.

Details

The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
The Weinstein Company
Opens August 16

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The Butleropens, inauspiciously, with stiff voiceover: Whitaker's character, Cecil Gaines, tells the story of his childhood picking cotton in 1920s Georgia. Cecil learns early on that he's at the mercy of the white folk for whom he and his parents work. The plantation owner's son (a sociopath played by Alex Pettyfer) first rapes Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) and then murders his father (David Banner). As a grudging act of recompense—you'd hardly call it kindness—the family matriarch (played unflinchingly by Vanessa Redgrave) invites Cecil into the big house to train as a domestic servant, though that's not the phrase she actually uses.

The invitation changes Cecil's life. He learns good manners and discretion, qualities that serve him well when he eventually becomes a waiter at a swanky hotel (Clarence Williams III is the supervisor who gives him his big break) and later earns a slot as a butler at the White House, where he serves under eight presidents, beginning with Robin Williams's Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Others are played by James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman, all impeccably cast; Schreiber's LBJ is particularly robust, barking orders from the toilet seat as his beagles flop around him like tired minions.)

The Butler is adapted from a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, detailing the story of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen. (The movie's official title, changed at the last minute as the result of a lawsuit instigated by Warner Bros.—which released a short called The Butler in 1916—is Lee Daniels' The Butler, though no normal person is going to call it that.) Danny Strong, writer of HBO's Game Change, fleshed out the story and enlarged its scope.

Cecil is happy enough in his line of work, which allows him to ably support his kids and his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). But his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), chafes under the status quo; he first becomes one of the Freedom Riders and later joins the Black Panthers. You could call that a basic generation-gap screenwriting contrivance, or you could call it a smart way to dramatize the turmoil and necessary change brought about by the civil rights movement. It's both: Cecil may yearn for white people's respect, but his children understandably want to push for more.

In Precious, the characters were walking symbols for the worst horrors of inner-city life. The Butler puts its characters first. Daniels re-creates some of the most potent and horrific images of the civil rights era, including those of young black protesters being blasted with firehoses. But his approach is, for the most part, more personal than instructional. You can see where everyone's coming from in The Butler, why some characters are afraid to ask for more while others dare to demand it.

Daniels's history lesson isn't always graceful. At times The Butler suggests, far too optimistically, that the presence of servants of color in the White House actually helped shape policy, and sometimes characters declaim rather than speak. In a recent Parade interview, he explains that when he showed the movie to his family, his 30-year-old nephew asked him, "Did some of this stuff really happen?" a question Daniels found distressing. In the same interview, Winfrey, asked if young people today know enough about the civil rights movement, was even blunter: "They don't know diddly-squat. Diddly-squat!"

Then again, one person's history lecture is another's common sense and straight talk. When Cecil says, in voiceover, "Any white man can kill any of us at any time and not be punished for it," it's impossible not to think of Florida today.

There's something else going on here, too. There are more terrific black actors in Hollywood than there are good roles they might actually land. The Butler creates an open, freeing space for lots of these performers. Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Yaya Alafia: Everybody's good. Whitaker is one of those observant, understated performers who says everything between the lines. His Cecil has spent a lifetime being deferential to white people, but as one character cannily points out, subservience can be quietly subversive.

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4 comments
Maspero YF
Maspero YF

Did Europe and America support the Muslim Brotherhood to eliminate Christians in Egypt? At a time when the Copts (Egyptian Christians) are suffering from unprecedented state of persecution during the past 12 of the rule of the over-thrown ex-president Mohamed Morsi, reached its peak on Wednesday 14th of August by burning and destroying more than 25 churches and buildings belonging to them, in addition to burning property, houses and shops. Copts were shocked by insensitive statements, issued by officials in the United States and Europe are going all on one approach , emphasizes the condemnation of what it called violence of the security forces and the army to break up sit-ins of armed Muslim Brotherhood, while not a single word of condemnation of the senseless violence the Copts have suffered, persecution and genocide, which is surprising and call into question: Are Europe and America allied with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and support the bloodshed of Egyptian Christians. While Egypt's Christian minority are being slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic groups and the Jihad organizations in Upper Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and others, The US and Europe turns a blind eye choosing to appease the terrorists allied with Al-Qaeda, which has waged terrorist operations against the United States and Europe Facts: In the past 24 hours, the Muslim Brotherhood has: 1. Burned about 25 church in a single day in Egypt is a testament to the size of oppression practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood to terrorize the peaceful Christians and deny them the right to worship. It is one of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2. Intimidated the Christians in Upper Egypt and prevented them from leaving their homes and abused, and threatened to kill them, something we have become afraid of on the lives of millions of Christians, especially in Upper Egypt 3 Terrorism reached it border is unprecedented by burned even schools of the Coptic institutions In view of all what we suffered, from persecution, discrimination and ethnic cleansing we emphasize Europe and the United States' implicit responsibility for all the atrocities inflicted upon us under the blatant American-European support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied terrorist groups A statement is attached with the most important attacks on the Coptic churches and Coptic establishments on Wednesday,14th of August , 2014 Report about the attacks on Christians and their churches, their property and their facilities on 14/8/2013 by the Muslim Brotherhood 1 Church of the Virgin Mary and Anba Abram of the Copts Orthodox village Dljh, the center of Deir Mawas, Minya Governorate burning church and demolished 2 Church of St. Mina Coptic Orthodox + clinic Abu Hilal District Kebly governorate of Minya burning church 3 Center Baptist Church Bani Mazar, Minya Governorate burning church 4 Church Street Prince Taodharos Husseiny, Medan Sednawy, Minya, burned 5 Third Evangelical Church Minya fully fire Evangelical Church Ezbet Gad Mr., Minya fully fire 6 St. George's Coptic orthodox church the land of the archbishopric, Sohag Governorate, burning church hurch and building services electricity 7 Marmriqs Street, Sohag, burning 8 Church of the Virgin and Anba Abram Sohag burning 9 Prince Taodharos church burning Echatbi Fayoum 10 Church of Virgin Mary for the Coptic orthodox the village Nazlah, Yusuf Center, Fayoum governorate, burning Church St. Demiana village Alzerby, Fayoum, burning 12 Sisters of the Good Shepherd Monastery School Army Street Church, Suez Governorate, burning 13 Alfrencescan parents Church, Street 23, the Suez, burning Greek Church Paradise Street, Suez, fully burned 14 Evangelical Church Army Street, Suez, Fire 15 16 George Church kolta and Namees street Governorate of Assiut, Fire 17 Apostolic Church kolta and names street, Governorate of Assiut, Fire Assiut Reformed Church, fully burned 18 19 Church of virgin Mary el saf , Osfih, Helwan Fire St' George Church Meadow, Qalubiya, Fire20 St' Mina Church, Omranya, Giza, burning 21 22 Virgin Church Street ten, Boulaq Dakrour, Giza burning St' George Church Arish burning23 24 The Mar John Church, longing Street, Minya Governorate, burning 25 Church of Virgin Mary Kafr Hakim, Kerdasa, Giza, burning 26 St. Mina Church in Beni Mazar-Minya, burning 27 Church of Virgin Mary in Bani Mazar, Center Street, Minya, burning Maspero Youth Foundation for Development and Human Rights contact@myfdhr.com Founder : Ramy Kamel +2 01276227168

jmac050602
jmac050602

A writer should know that "too didactic" is redundant. The idea of being didactic is the idea of being too much of something already.  What an idiot.

UNo1
UNo1

@Maspero YF No. 

 

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