The Butler (Lee Daniels, USA, 2013)

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A history lesson à la Classics Illustrated – the Scooby-Doo version – on the civil rights of black people in America told through an imaginative depiction of the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker), a White House butler who worked for eight different presidents, The Butler  is nonetheless at times very moving. Moreover,  the melodramatic story is wittily leavened  by a humor that seems agreeably camp; camp that is enlivening, affirming and all the more pleasurable to see for being unusual in a story that focuses on an African-American family. Whittaker is better at conveying the emotion underneath the mask of blankness when with the presidents than the on-the surface human emotionality when with his family. Oprah Winfrey gets the down-low and sexy dimension of the wife just right, a considerable achievement given who she is and what she represents. There is a pleasure in seeing an all-star cast play these historical characters: when icons impersonate icons does the iconicity  of each combine to jive or jar? I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites though I can’t resist mentioning that I was shocked at how Jane Fonda was made up to look, even if she was playing Nancy Reagan. A movie that has nothing to do with the art of cinema but a lot to do with the fulfillment of film’s role as ‘America’s National Theatre’; the way such films make Americans feel they’re taking part in a collective conversation; and the audience’s pleasure in seeing how wigs and costumes are used as a shortcut to period and how an array of actors, many treasured since childhood, are now doing, ‘being’ and enacting.

José Arroyo

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