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LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2013) review

December 14, 2013

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written by: Danny Strong

produced by: Pamela Oas Williams, Laura Zisken, Lee Daniels, Buddy Patrick & Casian Ewes

directed by: Lee Daniels

rating: PG-13 (for some violent and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)

runtime: 132 min.

U.S. release date: August 16, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray release: January 14, 2014

 

After the incendiary “Django Unchained” dropped at the end of last year, 2013 has been touted as the year of black filmmaking, with films such as “Fruitvale Station”, “12 Years a Slave“, “42” and “The Best Man Holiday all featuring African-Americans both in front of and behind the camera.  Added to this list, and attempting to make a late season Oscar grab, is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, a film inspired by the true story of Cecil Gaines, a White House servant who worked for several Presidents over the decades.

Forest Whitaker plays the titular character, Cecil Gaines, and the film follows his entire life from a young boy into his senior years.  Growing up under slave-like conditions on a farm in Macon, Georgia in the 1920s, Cecil witnesses firsthand the horrors of slavery and racism, yet is able to strike out on his own and eventually land a job at a prestigious hotel in Washington DC.  There, his cautious, calm, impeccable and (most importantly) apolitical demeanor catches the eye of Mr. Warner (Jim Gleason), the head of servants at the White House.  He hires Cecil as a butler to join the extensive White House staff of cooks, maids and servants, and it is in this role that he becomes a passive, mostly silent witness to history over the next several decades.

 

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On the home front, Cecil leads a fun but somewhat troubled life as a husband to his boozy wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and a father to their two sons, Charlie and Louis (David Oyelowo).  Louis heads out to college, but quickly gets involved with the flourishing civil rights movements in Alabama and Mississippi, much to the consternation of Cecil, who prefers to remain impassive and impartial in face of controversial politics.  As Cecil works steadily through each administration, we follow the parallel story of Louis, who conveniently is at every single major event in the civil rights movement, from the sit-in protests at Woolworths to the street marches in Selma to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and through the rise of black militancy and the Black Panthers.  Cecil at first all but disowns his son, but slowly starts to see the importance of civil rights, even going so far as to fight for equal pay for black staffers at the White House, but will he find it in his heart to reconcile with his own son?

“The Butler” mechanically winds it way through history and works fairly well as a black perspective on 20th century American history, mixing in archival footage and hitting all the key moments in a “Forrest Gump” style of storytelling.  Because of this, the narrative is a little stiff at times, but it attempts to spice things up by casting almost every single character with top-notch actors.  Robin Williams, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alan Rickman and Lenny Kravitz (and a handful of others) all make either supporting or cameo appearances.  My two faves of this all-star supporting cast were Liev Schreiber as the cranky Lyndon B. Johnson and Terrence Howard at his deliciously sleazy best as Cecil’s neighbor Howard, a great character that unfortunately goes nowhere and has little purpose in the film.

 

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But the film ultimately succeeds through the touching, understated performances of Whitaker and Winfrey.  Forest Whitaker has made an entire career with those doleful, soulful eyes, and a sort of crestfallen demeanor that swings so easily from joy to melancholy and back again.  Cecil Gaines is a difficult role, a quiet character study that is all about remaining unemotional and uninvolved in his surrounding circumstances, but Whitaker does an admirable job in pulling it off.  But it is Winfrey who steals the show as Gloria, the long-suffering wife who has trouble dealing with Cecil’s long hours, the secrecy of his job, and the conflicts with their son.  Her travails with alcohol and dalliances with infidelity are handled gracefully in the film, and Oprah really seems to capture the ups and downs of being married and in love with the same person for so long.  If any performance in this film is worthy of an Oscar nomination this year, it is hers.

“The Butler” reveals the need for a stronger movie about the chaos, drama and tragedies of the civil rights movement.  Though it never really takes any chances and plays it relatively safe throughout, it is still just interesting enough as an alternative viewpoint on the historical upheavals of the 1950s and 60s to make it worth seeing.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2014 7:44 pm

    As much as I enjoyed The Butler, one thing that did irk me was how Louis happened to be at all of these major events with little to no explanation. In Dr. King’s room, leaving a building after hearing Malcolm X, being a Black Panther- it’s too easy for the film to just strategically place him at these events with no reason as to why he’s there. The sit-ins and Freedom Rides, fine, since we saw the establishing scenes setting up those moments, but everything else felt too contrived. I had a good time watching the film, but that point bugged me.

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