January 14, 2014 is a date which will live in infinity for fans of historical dramas and/or "Precious" director Lee Daniels; this is the day that the terrific Blu-ray/DVD combo of that filmmaker's "Lee Daniels The Butler" hits actual and virtual shelves everywhere. Not coincidentally, it is also roughly one week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
For the benefit of folks who were living an a wifi-deprived cave this summer, "Butler" is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, who was a White House butler for 34 years.
Allen's name is changed to Cecil Gaines, who genuine film star Forest Whitaker portrays very well. Whitaker's entire manner makes us believe that he is a man who is skilled at discretely providing high-level service and mostly contains his anger when subjected to treatment that most of us would consider horrible.
Co-star Oprah Winfrey does a decent job as Cecil's wife Gloria, a housewife who has a storyline involving a lovah in the aftahnoon. We get a good sense of this character, but Winfrey succumbs to her well-known tendency to amp up the drama a little too much.
We first meet Gaines as a young cotton field worker in 1926 and follow him through his roughly 30-year career as a White House butler; most of the segments that depict his White House career focus on interactions that relate to his being a black man working in the residence of the President of the United States during the course of the Civil Rights Movement.
Those stories are interesting but are much less at the center of the story than the publicity for the film indicates. Much of the narrative relates to the contrast between the formal atmosphere at the White House and the more lively vibe at the Gaines home; the attire there is much brighter, and the music and conversation are noticeably louder.
An even stronger contrast exists between the aforementioned quiet dignity that Cecil displays and the militant attitude of his son Louis Gaines; Louis becomes involved in the civil rights battle as a freshman at a southern university. His acts of protest begin with sitting in the all-white section of a lunch counter and escalate to being active with the Black Panthers. The consequences of those actions create incredible strife with Cecil.
Most of us understand the stress associated with being at opposite ends of one spectrum or another from our parents, and even more of us can relate to a scene in which Gloria making an innocent remark sparks a major fight between Cecil and Louis.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of the trailer for "The Butler" does an excellent job conveying the themes described above.
The more intense drama and more detailed information about the fight for racial equality that relate to Louis' story is reminiscent of early reviews of the '90s sitcom "Will and Grace" that suggest renaming the show "Jack and Karen" to reflect the contributions of those two supporting characters.
The "all-star" cast that portray Presidents Eisenhower through Reagan also deserve mention; Robin Williams' portrayal of Ike is surprisingly low-key, and his fellow thespians do an equally decent job regarding their roles. Liev Schreiber's take on the very eccentric LBJ is the most entertaining of the lot and hits the mark the best. Regarding first ladies, former "Hanoi Jane" Jane Fonda make an awesome Nancy Reagan.
Additionally, not mentioning that Danny Strong wrote the film's screenplay would require resigning from the fanboy community. Strong played evil nerd Jonathan on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It is a shame that he did not get Whedonverse favorite Nathan Fillion to play JFK.
The special features include a behind-the-scenes documentary and another short film on the Freedom Riders.
The final analysis is that "Butler" has the same mixed bag of elements that make so many current elections so close. The story of a White House veteran is good fodder for a film, but the tales of other members of this elite group may have been more compelling than that of Allen.
Another less-than-great element relates to an undue focus on Obama being elected president. This occurred more than 20 years after Gaines retired, was nearly five years ago, and Obama currently is a lame duck. Despite this, "Butler" speeds through most of the '70s in what seems to be one minute but devotes roughly 10 minutes to the Obama election.
Further, as stated above, Louis' story is simply more compelling than that of his father.
All of this boils down to "The Butler" being a good choice for anyone interested in stories of the civil rights movement, are fans of Whitaker, or are excited about Winfrey's return to a live-action role on the big screen after focusing on television for roughly the same amount of time that Allen worked in the White House. The rest of us are middle-of-the-road "independents who can go either way regarding liking this film.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "The Butler" is welcome to email me. You can also find me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.