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History deserves better than ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

Just because a movie tells an important story, that doesn't mean that the filmmaker gets an automatic pass when it comes to standards of drama, character and historical authenticity. Good intentions, and significant historical incidents, do not necessarily make for good cinema.

Case in point: the flawed “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” which uses some fairly transparent gimmicks in its attempt to use a single man and his family to tell the half-century story of the U.S. civil rights struggle. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio

In 1954, when Cecil Gaines – fictional protagonist of the film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – goes to work at the White House, America is being rocked by the ever-growing civil-rights movement.

All of that era’s important events, from lunch-counter sit-ins to Freedom Rides to the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” constitute an enduring and shameful chapter of history that, in so many ways, America is still struggling to resolve.

Which is why Daniels’ movie itself is so significant. Americans, apparently, need to be reminded continually that today’s freedoms are the result of past sacrifices. Further, Daniels’ movie refuses to do what so many other Hollywood attempts at portraying our racist past have done – 2011’s “The Help” being an example – which is see racial events through the eyes of a liberal white character.

Though a work of fiction, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was inspired by the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a black man who worked at the White House for 34 years, under eight presidents. But be warned: Taking Allen as a model, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong have created a story that comprises not just an enhancement of Allen’s life but a whole reimagining of how Allen and his family might have fit in history.

So we have the fictional Cecil Gaines – played by Forest Whitaker – growing up in Georgia, watching his mother get raped, his father murdered, but getting his first lessons in how to serve. He learns about refinement, ironically in an atmosphere where the slightest slip could get him killed. He leaves before the worst can happen, though, and finds a job that allows him to use his hard-learned skills.

Yet it is his attitude – one born from his instinct to survive – that attracts the attention of the White House. And pretty soon, to the joy of his wife Gloria – played by Oprah Winfrey – and his two sons, Cecil joins the White House butler corps. And so begins his professional sojourn.

To his credit, director Daniels isn’t interested in giving us a G-rated portrayal of Gaines’ life. His elder son, Louis (Daniel Oyelowo), resents what he sees as his father’s Uncle Tom tendencies. And Gloria, vamped gleefully by Oprah, both drinks too much and has at least one extramarital affair. Cecil himself is a simmering presence, torn between pride, humiliation and devotion to his work – traits that don’t always make him a candidate for either father or husband of the year.

But Daniels reaches too far. Son Louis isn’t a character so much as a symbol. Not only does he become a Freedom Rider, but he sits in at lunch counters. Not only does he become part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle, but he evolves into a Black Panther. Not only does his younger brother have an auspicious – and predictable – date with the Vietnam War, but Louis himself eventually runs for Congress. Not even real-life Congressman John Lewis can boast that varied a resume.

Daniels’ overreaching, which includes some of the most ridiculous casting in recent memory – Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower? – takes the larger drama of his film and transforms it into something more akin to a night-time soap.

 That’s unfortunate. Eugene Allen deserved better. We all do.

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