Signed by director Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009), The Butler (Lee Daniel’s The Butler, 2013) is certainly an inconsistent film, filled with misguided creative choices that sabotage a potential premise. However, in the midst of its defects comes a captivating aura, the result of a contained direction (to the standards of Daniels himself) that harmonizes the powerful performance of Forest Whitaker, ahead of an effective stellar cast, with an almost always competent production, Which situates the narrative in its various historical moments with precision. Although it is far from being the best film of the season, it is not for nothing that we can feel here a distinct scent of Oscar, coming mainly from the particular history of the protagonist, and not from the History that serves as the background to him.

Danny Strong’s screenplay takes a number of freedoms that transform reality into fiction in order to make it a comprehensive walk for the struggle of blacks for civil rights in the United States. It all begins with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), Eugene Allen’s fictional counterpart, waiting for a historic meeting. At age 90, Cecil has a lot of memories, beginning with an unfortunate childhood in a small southern town where young Gaines (Michael Rainey Jr.) worked alongside his parents picking cotton. When a tragedy involving her mother (Mariah Carey) attracts the affection of Mrs. Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is welcomed into the Great House and taught the basics of how to be a refined butler. Talented, it is not long before Cecil goes to work in Washington, catching the attention of high society until he is offered a seat in the White House, where he will remain for decades serving 8 presidents and witnessing the country’s major events.

The ambition of Danny Strong and Lee Daniels to illustrate 70 years of racial issues ends up condemning the narrative to superficiality, the only possible outcome in the face of this impractical task. In this way, the frenetic episodic structure will particularly please those who are unfamiliar with the history of civil rights in the West, as well as those who do not seek depth greater than that contained in the 140 characters of a tweet. To situate Cecil in the eye of the hurricane, the writer gives him a family designed to take part in the major historical events approached. In the skin of the butler’s wife, Oprah Winfrey distantly echoes her role as The Color Purple (1885), but gives way to the talented David Oyelowo, who lives his son Gaines. Louis is a kind of omnipresent Forrest Gump, close even to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But Lee Daniels does not seek the humor of Robert Zeneckis, and so he submits Louis to sharp scenes that hit the right notes of discomfort, Like the fire of the Liberty Bus and the intense harassment of young blacks in an ice cream parlor, interspersed with real images of files that remind us that this is a fictional representation of a recent painful reality.

Reality is what Cecil closely follows in the Oval Hall, where the film inexplicably assumes a dissonant amateurism of a whimsical production. Although Cecil gets a careful characterization over the years, on the presidential side only Liev Schreiber gets a make-up that tries to get him closer to Lyndon B. Johnson, a comic cartoon that stands out amidst disregard for the figures of all the other presidents. It is as if Daniels knew how to work only the black characters and stereotype the whites, something at the very least ironic for a length that preaches racial equality. The director’s fate is that this is not, in essence, a story about history, but rather a study of the effects of racial segregation on the protagonist, who progresses along with his country by slowly changing his submissive posture (and necessary for Survival) to a questioning stance. It is in these moments that Forest Whitaker shines brightly, injecting into the paper the mixture of sympathy and melancholy that defines a man forced to be invisible and adopt “two faces” throughout his life. The Oscar nomination, already on the horizon, will be well deserved.

Of course, the historic cycle closes with the election of Obama in 2008, treated as a kind of reward for blacks, and especially Cecil, for his patience and persistence. The exaggerated emphasis on the president’s figure almost makes us think that the whole movie was built having only this moment of intense Democratic propaganda in sight, but it does not hurt. When the credits rise, we have been seduced by the charisma of this friendly butler and the sentimental rewards of the script, distractions that hide most of the problems and allow us to qualify the film as a good and fleeting entertainment.

Categories: 2013, Drama, Movie, Review

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