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The Butler

Why has Hollywood never made a film about the civil rights movement? There are plenty of documentaries, most notably Eyes on the Prize, but we all know that documentaries don’t get seen by many people. There have been films on this or that corner of the struggle—Ghosts of Mississippi, The Long Walk Home, Mississippi Burning, Malcolm X—but nothing that tries to grapple with the whole thing. (By contrast, how many films have there been about Viet Nam?)

You wouldn’t be expecting it, but at times The Butler is nearly that movie. The film was inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article about a man who was in domestic service at the White House under eight presidents, but forget about that—aside from a few anecdotes, it’s entirely fictional. Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil, son of sharecroppers whose career path is set when the plantation matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave in the first of many star cameos) takes him into service as a “house nigger.” “The room should feel empty when you’re in it,” she instructs him, advice that informs his decades of service with the wealthy, powerful and white.

That may sound like a combination of Driving Miss Daisy and Forrest Gump, and it does take The Butler a while to get on its feet. (You may have to grit your teeth through most of the first reel.) But it does, first in its portrayal of black middle class life in the 1950s in the house Cecil shares with his wife (Oprah Winfrey, very good), two sons, and frequent guests. It gets even better in juxtaposing Cecil’s work with that of his college-aged son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he becomes involved in the early 1960s with the Freedom Riders. As his struggles land him repeatedly in jail, he becomes more radicalized, leading to increasing estrangement from his family.

The film loses focus once it gets past the 1960s, perfunctorily hitting on other touchstones like US policy toward apartheid in South Africa. Director Lee Daniels works with surprisingly restraint, at least compared to his previous films (Precious, The Paperboy). But it may be his old career as a casting director that led to the distracting stunt casting of oddly chosen stars to play the presidents: John Cusack makes for an interesting Nixon, but Liev Schreiber as Johnson and Alan Rickman as Reagan are simply weird. (I won’t tell you who plays Nancy Reagan, but it made me laugh out loud.) It’s not a great film, but there’s great stuff in it.

Watch the trailer for The Butler

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