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The Butler by Lee Daniels

December 26, 2013


The fourth feature by Lee Daniels can be quickly summarized watching its opening and closing scenes: in 1926 life in the US for black people was not much different than before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in 2008 a black man was elected to be the next President of the US, the scope of the film is to narrate what were the forces that provoked such a total change of scenery, Daniels has strung together the broad historical period transforming the real life Eugene Allen into the fictional character of Cecil Gaines, a butler at the White House during eight presidencies. I guess Daniels imagines that a narrative architecture like this should deliver a film about the life, struggles and fights of the African-American community while at the same time providing snippets of the race politics of eight US Presidents: is it really necessary to illustrate its superficiality?


Last year I was not a fan of Lincoln, but one thing Spielberg did the right way and in my opinion it is a lesson every director willing to treat a historical subject should learn: you can create the big historical picture focusing on a single episode in a short period of time, this way the film will achieve historical, cinematic and emotional depth. Ignoring this lesson – as Lee Daniels does with The Butler – condemns the film to superficiality and stereotypes: the complexity of the civil rights movement alone would constitute a mighty subject to film, and so would be the politics of race by each one of the eight presidents depicted in the movie. Daniels´ misconception is not helped by his casting choices, while Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines) and Oprah Winfrey (Cecil´s wife) are quite good and convincing, James Marsden´s JFK and Alan Rickman´s Ronald Reagan are ridiculous in their incapacity to deliver a believable image of these well-know figures. The film is dedicated ¨to the brave men and women who fought in the civil rights movement¨ but if you want to learn something about them while being emotionally devastated forget about The Butler and read a great book like Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter.

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