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Terrible Memory Lane  

The Butler succeeds in spite of itself

Between 1952 and 1986, Eugene Allen served as part of the White House's service staff, personally attending to the administrations of eight American presidents. Jackie Kennedy gave him one of Jack's ties as a memento after the president was shot. He drank root beer with Jimmy Carter at Camp David. He was a VIP at Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Ostensibly a biopic, The Butler isn't about Allen at all, really—and honestly, it's probably a better movie for it.

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a fictional composite that borrows only the broadest and most narrative-serving strokes of Allen's life—a life which serves as an effective (and surprisingly affecting) vantage from which to tell the story of civil rights in the 20th century. Spanning a historical chasm that begins in the cotton farms of the Jim Crow South and ends with the election of the first black president, The Butler puts forgivably little effort into eschewing the clumsy, cause/effect conventions that make most biopics so totally insufferable—though, rest assured, it is a film with its fair share of montages and awkward facial prosthetics. And with Oprah on board (as Gaines' wife, her first film role in 15 years) the cavalcade of cameos is so dense (Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as the Reagans) that poor Mariah Carey shows up just long enough to—spoiler alert!—be wordlessly raped before the celebrity train has to move on to the next stop.

But in spite of its shortcomings, the dramatic contrast at the heart of the narrative—that of Gaines' obliging obedience versus the principled activism of his son/plot device (well played by David Oyelowo)—makes for a satisfyingly reductionist trip down terrible memory lane.

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