Tag Archives: The Butler

President’s Day Countdown

Happy President’s Day! It’s not the most glamorous of holidays, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood has ignored it. To the contrary, there are dozens of movies you could watch to celebrate. Like Independence Day.

Or, you could watch some films worth seeing. Like these five. Enjoy!

5. The Butler

Lee Daniels’s well-stocked cast populates a yarn about a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who watched his father shot to death in a cotton field and witnessed 8 different presidents and the social upheaval of 8 administrations before finally casting a ballot for his country’s first black president. Equal parts sentimental and subversive, the film is more sly than a casual observer might realize, full of the tricks of any Big Hollywood Epic as well as cagey casting. This is a sly directorial feat that made salient points and still grossed more than $100 million.

Quote: We have no tolerance for politics in the White House.

4. 1776

Yes, it’s long and it takes some historical liberties, but this film adaptation of the hit musical makes the genesis of the America revolution almost as much fun as that episode of Schoolhouse Rock that had you singing the preamble.

Quote:  I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!



3. All the President’s Men

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play the great onscreen odd couple investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post writers who sleuthed out the truth behind the definitive act of Presidential corruption. Winner of four Oscars, including recognition for William Goldman’s meticulous screenplay, the film remains a staple of both political cinema and the great American filmmaking of the Seventies.

Quote: Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.


2. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard turned away from the heavy-handed sentimentality that marred his entire career to direct a pointed yet textured account of the TV interviews that finally got the American public the Nixon confession they desperately needed. The effort is aided by outstanding performances from Frank Langella and Michael Sheen.

Quote: I’m saying that when the President does it, it’s not illegal.


1. Lincoln

Spielberg ladles on the nostalgia and sentimentality in the first and final scenes, but in between is about two and  a half hours of brilliant filmmaking and even better acting. Daniel  Day-Lewis is as good as all the hype, and his supporting players are also magnificent. The amazing thing that can go overlooked is how gloriously Tony Kushner unveils modern politics by articulating the struggles of the past.

Quote: Euclid’s first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do.


Dismantling the White House

The Butler

by Hope Madden

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Audre Lorde said this in 1984 to propose that those seeking equality stop using the tools of the white, patriarchal society to effect change. Lee Daniels challenges Ms. Lorde’s assertion on a number of levels with his new film, The Butler.

A perusal of Daniels’s work suggests an intriguing if heavy-handed director. He’s drawn to provocative stories, but tales that might otherwise feel subversive tend to spring from Daniels’s camera a little pulpy, a tad melodramatic, sometimes even lurid. His greatest strength to date has been in casting. His second has been in eliciting revelatory performances from those casts. But understated, he will never be.

His latest effort suggests Daniels has leveraged the creditability he earned with Precious (and nearly lost with The Paperboy) to make the leap to Important Hollywood Movies.

How Important and Hollywood? Oprah stars.

This well-stocked cast populates a yarn about a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who watched his father shot to death in a cotton field and witnessed 8 different presidents and the social upheaval of eight administrations before finally casting a ballot for his country’s first black president.

Cue the strings.

And yes, Daniels employs all the tricks of the trade for his generational eye-witness tale of historical change: era-appropriate clothing and hairstyles, a personal involvement in every major historical event, old people make up.

How he uses these items, however, suggests a slyer filmmaker than some might predict. Yes, his story is of a man who embraced a society-approved role as butler, and in being a good man in the right place, was able to impact cultural decisions. That is, he used the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Meanwhile Daniels uses the imposing score, slick production values and predictable structure of J. Edgar and other historically sweeping dramas to look at how the slow movement of systemic racism affected one black family. What he didn’t examine was how their noble suffering moved one white man to action. (For that you can see Blood Diamond, Glory, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Ghost and the Darkness, The Blind Side, The Help, and basically every other big budget film on the topic.)

Add to that his cagey casting. Some intriguing and generally successful choices: John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and Alan Rickman, sublime as Ronald Reagan. And how ingenious is it to hire Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan? Speaks volumes without saying a word, doesn’t it?

The whole affair offers a crafty playfulness hidden by the gloss of the packaging. Is The Butler a self-important, melodramatic tear jerker? Oh, hell yes. But it’s a real surprise as well.