Moving, thought-provoking and equally melodramatic, Lee Daniels’ The Butler proves to be an effective, if heavy-handed history lesson.
Based on the real-life account of Eugene Allen, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American who eyewitnesses notable events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family.
I’d classify this film as Oscar-bait. Parts of the film work – and effectively so – but sometimes, it feels like a Lifetime TV movie, pandering to the crowd for an emotional response.
The film is uneven – when it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s bad – you can’t help but roll your eyes. The film often dissolves into melodramatics – with boozy Oprah leading the charge.
The all-star cast brings tons of talent to a truly deserving story – yet the same star power is oftentimes overbearing and distracting for the viewer. It took a full half hour to convince myself to refer to the character of Gloria Gaines as Gloria instead of Oprah. With every new character introduction, there was an audible “OMG, he’s/she’s in this!?” almost every 15 minutes. Once Cecil hits the White House, it’s a rotating door of Presidents and the famous actors portraying them. Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F Kennedy (there was a collective swoon in the theatre), Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Regan. While each of these actors only had a short time on-screen – it seemed as if they were playing Presidential caricatures based on the most well-known eccentricities of each President that they were portraying. The make-up was often ridiculous and distracting (they literally glued a nose on Cusack… that’s it). I really wish that we had more time with each respective President. Jane Fonda, however, stole the show with her 5-minutes as Nancy Regan.
Compressing over 80 years of a man’s life into a 2-hour film is a difficult task. We follow Cecil from his younger years on a cotton farm, his tenure as White House butler, through his retirement and the inauguration of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American President. The film might have worked better as a mini-series, bringing greater focus to each Presidential term, and the impacts that the decisions made on landscape of civil rights.
The father-son dynamic flows throughout the fabric of this film. As a young boy, Cecil witnessed his father’s murder at the hands of a white man. The last imparting wisdom that his father passed was to “keep his head down… it’s a white man’s world”. This fear follows Cecil through his life, and is carried into his profession. Cecil’s relationship with his family, specifically his son Lewis, is the central and most intriguing part of the film. Lewis is the polar opposite of his father, rash, passionate and ready to fight for his beliefs and his freedom.
Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr, and Terrence Howard are all fine in their respective roles (if not a little overdramatic). Oprah in particular did a fine job – but again, I couldn’t separate her from her character.
Forest Whitaker is charming and endearing as Cecil Gaines. He brings a gentle grace to his character – such subtlety and nuance to a role that could have easily descended into wild theatrics. He grounds this film full of big names and ridiculous performances. In his portrayal, Cecil’s calm and collected demeanor only cracks a few times in the film – and whenever this character lost his composure – so did I.
Director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong recreate the famous sit-ins, marches, attacks, arrests and beatings that the young “freedom riders” endured during the civil rights movement. The re-enactments are the most heartbreaking and effective parts of the film. I loved that they were able to include real footage and photographs from the era in film. It was a sobering reminder that young people risked so much for the right to enjoy the same freedoms as other American citizens.
I’m not embarrassed to say that I cried or at least attempted to hold back tears in a few scenes in this film (let’s be real – I straight up “ugly-cried” at one point). It’s difficult to separate an emotional response to the film from an emotional and somewhat personal response to the civil rights era. It’s a part of American history that encompasses a difficult combination of both hate and hope. In the face of oppression, violence, and oftentimes death, American citizens fought for equal rights. It’s a battle that wages on to this day. Equality is not only a civil rights issue – it’s a human rights issue.
The film is neither as good as we want it to be, nor as bad as we fear it could be. I certainly wish this was a better film, since the subject matter is so important and deserving. The original source material “A Butler Well Served By This Election” is poignant and intimate (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/06/AR2008110603948_pf.html) and it makes me think that this film might have been better served by focusing on one character and one story.
The final movie result is part lackluster biopic, part ham-fisted (and somewhat misguided) historical allegory, despite the noble intentions of the cast and filmmakers involved. It is worth seeing – if only for a history lesson, or a reminder that although we’ve come so far on issues of equal rights in such a short time, there’s still much work to be done.