The Butler: Encoding the Gump and Zelig View of Film Biopics

Posted: August 20, 2013 in Movies


It is easy to fall for the depiction of the Civil Rights Movement in Lee Daniel’s The Butler since it’s so highly Gumped-up.  Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) like Forest Gump walks in on history in the making, but only the history relevant to his being a Black Butler in the White House.  So for the President’s Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman— Carter and Ford are left on the cutting room floor) it means listening to discussions on Little Rock, the Freedom Riders, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, Apartheid, the election of President Obama, with Vietnam thrown in to give The Butler some non-civil rights credibility.  The Presidents become the clowns of history, barely on screen long enough to make a joke, a dramatic point and then get pushed aside for the next big civil rights beat.  Gaines’ sons (the real life model, Eugene Allen had only one) are left to become the zeligs (that Woody Allen character who could morph into whatever character the historical moment required) being there to catch the historical wave be it Freedom Rider, Black Panther, political activist and committed politician or Vietnam sacrifice (the younger son), so long as the prodigal son is there for the big emotional end. In between there is the jazz of husband, wife, neighbor and friend falling in and out of love, temptation, sobriety, and loneliness with Oprah Winfrey giving a powerhouse performance as the dedicated matriarch and Forest Whitaker living enough of a White House life to keep him from being erased and a private life brilliant enough to hold the contour of an audience’s heart.    The Butler gets an A-.

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