“The Butler” is a satisfying entry into film competition this year, a steak and baked potato alternative to the empty-calorie Slushees.
Spontaneous applause broke out afterward yesterday at a Galleria Mall showing, and even the website Rotten Tomatoes has been unable to come up with a negative comment.
Throughout, the audience is in the capable hands of professionals who know their trade. In a cameo role, Jane Fonda plays a willowy and sharp Nancy Reagan just as skillfully as Alan Rickman portrays her Ronnie. In a long portrayal of Richard Nixon, John Cusack captures vulnerability as well as cunning.
The scenes with the Kennedy family and those of Lyndon Johnson are sketches really, caricatures of sweet children on the one hand and blunt plain-spokenness on the other. The famous beagles are even portrayed by long-eared doggie actors.
But except for the sweet scene of a truly impressive Forest Whitaker as butler Cecil Gaines reading a “Madeleine” book to Caroline, the more recent portrayals of presidents lag behind the earlier ones. Jimmy Carter is represented only by a taped clip of a televised speech, a far cry from Robin Williams' detailed portrayal of Eisenhower. By the time the film gets to Obama, the scriptwriting for presidential parts seems to be faltering.
And yet, that election is the high point—and the main point-- of the screenplay. Gaines' son, a Freedom Rider in college, is vindicated. So is Gaines, who more than once, always respectful but with his arguments in place, had asked that black White House aides be paid the same as the white aides and that promotions be offered equally. Spoiler alert—this doesn’t tip the balance at work the way it should, but in his personal life, it does.
Powerful moments are the foundation of this film, many of them in the private lives of those who try to make a difference. Gloria Gaines, played sensitively by Oprah Winfrey, reaches a new understanding when her husband takes her to see the abandoned slave quarters where he had lived as a boy. Their relationship continues to deepen, even though there are trying times, portrayed admirably, that could have broken it. Winfrey is versatile, unassuming, and a just plain good actor.
This film is a triumph, but not just because it showcases a butler whose term of office was far longer than the elected officials he comes to know well. As a paean to the civil rights movement, it remarks on the mostly custodial role presidents have while societal norms create the surge and flow of the national mood.
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Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at Buffalo State College.
Contact Linda at email@example.com