Whitaker-Winfrey drama packs a mighty wallop | Inquirer Entertainment
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Whitaker-Winfrey drama packs a mighty wallop

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 11:04 PM August 23, 2013

WHITAKER AND WINFREY. Generating early Oscar buzz for “The Butler.”

Oprah Winfrey may be the most popular face in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” but she is by no means its only draw. Aside from Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mariah Carey and Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan), the film also has Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman portraying US presidents—with mixed results—as America writhes its way out of the dark days of the Civil Rights movement.

Daniels’ historical drama follows the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African-American butler who served eight US presidents during his 34-year tenure at the White House. Gaines is fictional, but Eugene Allen, who inspired the film and lived long enough to witness the ascent of Barack Obama to the US presidency, isn’t.

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Cecil’s imperfect world unfurls as we see him witness his mother (Carey) getting raped and his father (David Banner) getting shot to death by a white cotton plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer), whose grandmother (Redgrave) later takes him in as a houseboy.

Clamor for equality

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Thereafter, his stint at a swanky hotel in Washington, DC, leads him to his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), then to the White House—where US chief executives hem and haw about the evils of oppression and racial discrimination.

We see them conveniently look the other way as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and company push for reforms—until they can no longer ignore the clamor for equality. For his part, Cecil is “trained” to see and hear no evil.

In time, Gaines’ detachment alienates not only his eldest son (a student-activist), but also his loving but lonely wife. His job at 1600 Pennsylvania ave. has given Cecil financial stability, but not domestic bliss: Gloria takes to the bottle as she struggles with guilt over an affair with a family friend (Howard). But, their lives are ripped apart when tragedy comes knocking on their door.

The movie is far from perfect—in fact, it’s marred by thematic and narrative contrivances. Moreover, the cameos are more distracting than helpful, with bad makeup further weighing down less-than-convincing characterizations: Robin Williams looks like Robin Williams mimicking Dwight D. Eisenhower; James Marsden looks like John F. Kennedy impersonating a sober Corny Collins, and Alan Rickman looks like he’s doing an impression of Professor Snape!

Divisive issues

Forget all those quibbles, however. The film needs to be seen, because it’s much greater than the sum of its faulty parts. It soars and scores when it tackles the divisive issues that make the Gaines’ family fragmented, dysfunctional and very “relatable”—especially the scorching sequence at the dinner table where a heated discussion on Sidney Poitier’s performance in “In The Heat of The Night” ensues. We weren’t surprised to hear some Caucasian viewers sobbing unabashedly behind us, because we were just as moved!

Whitaker’s stirringly subdued portrayal gives the film its focus and is further enhanced and complemented by Oprah’s nuanced and Oscar buzz-worthy turn. Hollywood’s Queen of Talk proves that her Academy Award-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 drama, “The Color Purple,” was no fluke!

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TAGS: cinema, Oprah Winfrey, Racial Discrimination, racism, The Butler
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