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December 20th, 2014

Lee Daniels’ The Butler ***1/2

 

I roll my eyes at the English people’s obsession with the royal family. But, truth be told, Americans are just as obsessed with our presidents.

 

The president is just one man in a government of thousands. And due to the Constitutional framework of checks and balances, the president doesn’t have all that much power to change things. But that certainly doesn’t stop us from talking about him.

 

When we like a president, the support has a tendency to grow into hero worship – with framed portraits and calendars at our desk and bumper stickers.

 

And when we don’t like a president, the disagreements can turn into over-the-top hatred, as we blame him for every problem that exists in society.

 

When George W. Bush was in office, people on the left called the president a dense, hopelessly out-of-touch elitist. They accused Bush of destroying the economy, running up the national debt, and starting unprovoked wars against Arab dictators.

 

Now that Barack Obama is president, people on the right are accusing him of… the exact same things.

 

Love them or hate them, presidents are a lightning rod for controversy and they are always interesting.

 

I am assuming that the reason “The Butler” became the sleeper blockbuster hit of the summer is that adults wanted to see a movie that featured famous actors playing all the presidents from their childhood.

 

“The Butler” is basically the black “Forrest Gump.” It tells the story of Cecil Gaines: a fictional butler who worked at the White House from the 1950s through the 80s. Cecil quietly works his way through American history and meets all the major players along the way.

 

If Cecil is Forrest Gump, his son Louis plays the role of Jenny.

 

While Cecil watches history unfold without making waves, Louis eagerly contributes to every stage of the Civil Rights Movement. First he gets arrested for sitting in the “whites only”  section of a southern lunch counter. Then he’s marching with Dr. Martin Luther King. Inevitably he becomes a militant Black Panther.

 

At its heart, “The Butler” isn’t about history. It’s the story of a hard-working father who truly loves his son but doesn’t know how to talk to him or support him.

 

It’s an honest and relatable story. And for that reason I think “The Butler” is a little better than “Forrest Gump.”

 

Plus I was pleasantly surprised to see that Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda do such a good job of portraying Ronald and Nancy Reagan. With Professor Snape and Hanoi Jane as the Republican couple, I was ready for the worst. But they actually play the Reagans as likable, decent people.

 

In the end, the coolest moments of the movie for me are the ones where The Butler meets the presidents. Go figure. I am obsessed with presidents, too.

 

 

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