“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would not recommend “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as it relives recent American history as it happened, not as many political sycophants want to remember. In a nutshell, it tells the life story of Cecil Gaines, a butler who served eight American presidents. Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, it brings the racial tensions of this country into full focus.
Forest Whitaker is perfect playing Mr. Gaines, a butler whose primary focus is to be seen and not heard. Oprah Winfrey excels beyond her personal reputation as his wife and the mother of his two young boys, a woman who finds comfort through alcohol and cigarettes as she confronts the many hours where her husband is away. She is splendid as a woman torn between her loving husband’s role as the functional equivalent of an old South’s “house n----r” and her teenage son’s rebelliousness.
David Banner plays Mr. Gaines’ son as he reaches his college years, soon finding himself participating as a freedom rider in the South. As he drifts from a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. to a member of the Black Panthers, he is repeatedly incarcerated to the dismay of his parents. The other son enlists in the service and is sent to Vietnam where tragedy awaits.
Director Daniels succeeds in combining the interactions taking place in the White House with that occurring in the streets of America. In many parts of the country black people are treated like second-class citizens, forced to eat in designated restaurant areas as well as use only identifiable restrooms. Young people m
arching in the name of equality are brutally beaten and sometimes killed, and chaos looms with the death of Mr. King in April of 1968.
But while you see our country’s anguish, you also get an invitation into the White House. Robin Williams is surprisingly effective as President Eisenhower, a chief executive forced to confront the ugliness taking place in Selma and Montgomery.
James Marsden is spot on as a young John F. Kennedy, and Liev Schreiber nails Lyndon B. Johnson right down to his tendency to address his aides with no shame or embarrassment while seated on a toilet. Finally, John Cusack perfectly reincarnates Richard Nixon, a man who wallowed in an alcohol-infused haze of paranoia to the bitter end.
“The Butler” is a reminder that our country should focus on our own weaknesses before trying to impose our will on other nations. As I left the theater with my Saudi exchange student, Thamer, I noted how his own country, Saudi Arabia, was our ally despite the fact that it was not a democracy. Noting what the young people in his country were struggling to attain, he responded that I, as a criminal defense lawyer, should be happy to live in the United States and not his country. When I asked why, he smiled saying, “You’d die of boredom, as we have no crime.”
Shouldn’t we pay more attention to Cairo, Ill., rather than Cairo, Egypt?
“In a World…”
I have noted in earlier reviews that 2013 has been a breakthrough year for women on the screen. The most recent is by writer/director Lake Bell in her beguiling movie “In a World... .” She stars as Carol, a young woman trying to establish a foothold in the male-dominated voice-over world. Put another way, discrimination against women has not gone away in this country, including in the entertainment industry.
In this film, Carol is the daughter of Sam, a recognized legend in the voice-over world. Fred Melamed is sensational in his role as an arrogant, aging icon, and he even finds the need to toss his daughter on the street in order to make room for his new 30-year old girlfriend.
Sam’s heir apparent is Gustav, played by an equally arrogant Ken Marino. These men view their occupation as a males-only club, and they are the kings of this jungle.
When Carol is forced to live with her sister Jamie and Jamie’s husband Moe, played splendidly by Alexandra Holden and Rob Corddry, a subplot develops when Gustav attempts to seduce Ms. Holden. It may sound a bit tacky, but the movie never loses energy as the sisters wrestle with their plight.
What makes “In a World…” so charming is your gradual attachment to Carol. In a sense, she’s almost like an alter ego to Greta Gerwig’s lovable character in “Frances Ha.”
Both Carol and Frances are fighting to get ahead professionally in an unwelcoming world as they wrestle with the peaks and valleys of their personal lives. I found both of them to be devoid of any fake pretense, and these are two characters that all viewers, particularly young professional women, are going to find immensely appealing.
While Ms. Bell is asking a meaningful question as to why talented women are not allowed into the lucrative voice-over industry of film and radio, that same question could be asked in many areas. For example, why is our medical profession overwhelmingly dominated by doctors who are men and nurses who are women? Despite the fact that this problem is being addressed here in Indianapolis as I write this, why has the panel of federal conflict lawyers over the past 20 years been dominated by middle-aged white guys?
The importance of “In a World...” transcends Carol’s ability behind the mike. There is a great scene near the end where she bumps into the woman (Geena Davis) who made the decision to hire her over more well-known competitors. As Carol attempts to thank her patriarch, she was politely told that she was not selected because she was the most talented. To the contrary, her selection reflected the fact that it would be most meaningful to other young women aching to find a way through their own professional glass ceiling.
In the end, Carol’s triumph is every young woman’s hope and aspiration. I can’t help but believe that as the movie ends, many young women in the theater will be heard aggressively saying “Yes!” under their breath.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.