Lee Daniels’ The Butler ReviewAugust 30, 2013
There are some films that tackle serious issues (whether they be from the past or present) with the purpose of truly moving us to change as a society. And then there are films that have an agenda of simply winning awards. From the trailer, it appeared the latest concoction of The Weinstein Company – The Butler (and no, I am not calling it by its “proper” title) – would be just that, a drama about race created mainly to win the hearts of Academy voters. However, does director Lee Daniels’ new film ultimately rise above expectations and become something more than that?
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) grew up on a cotton farm while the customs of the Antebellum South were still slowly phasing out. Some years after seeing his father killed right in front of his eyes, he leaves the farm and soon develops the desire to become a professional domestic worker. More time passes, and now Gaines is working in Washington, D.C. He’s married to a nice woman named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and has two nice sons named Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley). He is then offered a job at the White House where he would personally be serving the President of the United States. Soon after Louis heads off to college, though, tensions begin to rise in America as the nation erupts into the Civil Rights Era, and the very livelihood of the Gaines household is put in jeopardy…
Essentially if you can envision Forrest Gump with a much more political, pretentious approach, then that’s what you can come to expect from The Butler. The film seems to be riding along on a tone that is billing The Butler as the most important motion picture of the year, which makes the story ham-fisted and cheesy. However, there is a degree to which this film has some importance, and that is mainly achieved through the fact that writer Danny Strong has wisely put this tale through the perspective of those most directly affected by the Civil Rights Era – the victims themselves. Plenty of these sorts of pictures view these events distastefully through the eyes of strictly white people, but thankfully here that is not the case, and that approach makes the civil rights sequences that much more effective. That’s the thing about The Butler, though – what its story mainly has going for it is the fact that it’s giving us a history lesson. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, films like this can do so much better with developing characters, hiding deeper messages and subtly affecting our emotions. The Butler falls flat on all of those things (the ending also felt awkward and overly preachy to me), but even so the script here is moderately successful due to its suitable treatment of these horrible events, an earnest storyline and some entertainment value.
This film mainly survives from the strength of its cast, although I do feel that this cast was also assembled solely for the purpose of gaining some Oscar attention. Still, there is some very solid work on display, particularly from Forest Whitaker in the lead role. He plays his character refreshingly low-key here rather than going over-the-top for most of the heavy dramatic sequences, making his larger moments more effective than they would have been otherwise. For the most part Whitaker is playing a rather dull character, but he does just enough – and then some – to make Cecil Gaines a much more interesting figure. I considered the casting of Oprah Winfrey to be one of the most cringe-worthy things about this project, but she is surprisingly likable here in the end result. She never goes overboard with the drama here – instead, Winfrey succeeds at properly portraying a woman with raw issues at hand, bringing her character to a complete circle. Everyone else in The Butler’s immense cast is here in chiefly menial roles, but in most cases they all do decent work. David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Alex Pettyfer, Terrence Howard, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Alan Rickman are just some of the other A-list actors you will see in The Butler, and mostly the time they spend on screen is effective. It’s just a shame that some of the cinematic greats in this picture are literally there for a minute or two, and then are never seen again.
Ultimately, this film was obviously calculated in its production as a typical Hollywood prestige picture, even if in some ways it justifies itself in that. The way that Lee Daniels chooses to film some of these scenes of racial violence and prejudice is very effective. Not only that, the performances here from the entire cast are generally solid for what The Butler is trying to do. Otherwise, the story we get here is predictable, clumsily paced, preachy and forsakes thematic depth and third-dimensional characters for its straightforward showcase of violent events in the Civil Rights Era. What The Butler leaves us with in the end is a racial drama that feels warm, but never cooks.