Friday, February 21, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Directed by Lee Daniels.
2013. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.
Oprah Winfrey
Jane Fonda
Vanessa Redgrave
Clarence Williams III
Elijah Kelley
David Banner

We proceed through the life and times of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker). Mr. Gaines works in the White House as a butler beginning during the Eisenhower (Williams) administration and finishing during the Reagan (Rickman) years. As a very young child he witnesses atrocities in the Jim Crow South while working as a cotton picker on a plantation. Due to one specific tragedy, he is made a house servant. When he gets older, he leaves the plantation and heads north a bit where he works as a server in a private club. He is so good that he lands that White House gig. At home, things between he and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) are strained by all of his long hours at work. He also has a contentious relationship with his eldest son Louis (Oyelowo). The two see the world very differently. Part of our story follows Louis as he is literally becomes a major part of just about every front of the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. The rest, of course, deals with Cecil's duties in the White House, the stress on his marriage and plenty of acrimony between he and Louis.

Right away, we're told The Butler is inspired by a true story. Let's tackle this first. The key word is "inspired." The real butler is a man named Eugene Allen. He most certainly did serve in that capacity in the White House for 34 years. However, not much else is rooted in fact. If you're wondering what is and what isn't, I'll not go into too many details to maintain some form of brevity. Suffice it to say most things that happen outside the White House are fiction wrapped in a cloak of history while what happens inside it is plausibly, possibly, kinda, sorta true. From what I've read, our hero's relationship with the Reagans is the most factual, followed by his rapport with the Kennedys. However, none of this should cloud your judgement. In my opinion, you shouldn't deem the movie to be better or worse than it actually is because more or less of it is true than you think. Let's move on.

What the movie does best is position Cecil against the people he loves. He is a man that works long and hard to provide for his family in a material sense. On the other hand, he's absent from them emotionally. We watch his marriage falter and wonder if he is even aware of what's happening. He does know of her battle with the bottle, but there is more going on than that. With his oldest son, it is a never-ending war of wills. They bark disagreements at one another until it eventually becomes too much for them to occupy the same room. Even though both situations are overly melodramatic, this is where The Butler is most consistently good. Star Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo are sufficiently angry and deliver fine performances. However, it's a truly remarkable Oprah Winfrey that glues this kitchen sink drama together and makes it go. Hers is the film's most complex and satisfying portrayal.

The movie stumbles over the one thing that was hyped before it was even released: its highlight reel of Black History. It simply fails to pack the punch necessary to give the film its intended power. Much of it is sped through and oversimplified, but doesn't linger long enough to impact the viewer who hasn't already been impacted. In other words, our prior knowledge, or lack thereof, plays heavily into how we feel without much prompting from the film. Early on, we're shown an earth-shattering event. However, that's really it. It's just a moment. Following this, the movie goes into 'tell us stuff we already know' mode by using Cecil to narrate. He basically says "This sucks. I'm outta here," just in a lot more empty words. The only historic part where the movie slows down and breathes is during Louis' time as a Freedom Rider. We see him go through the intense training for and then the harsh reality of staging a sit-in. After that, it's back to warp speed as there's a brief mention of Malcolm X, a stint in the Black Panther Party (incorrectly lumped together as being of identical philosophies, I might add), and failed political endeavors. What this does is sticks closely to mainstream America's very broad ideas of the many facets of the movement which helped shape society. In doing so, it commits a common error. That mistake is pushing the belief that only the aspects of the Civil Rights Movement that were associated with, and/or under the direction of, Martin Luther King Jr. are worth discussing. At least on the surface.

Beneath the surface, what's really going on is that the movie is simply using all of this as a plot device to develop the romance between Louis and Carol (Alafia, formerly Da Costa), a young woman he meets in college and goes through most of his phases with him. Even this is botched, often feeling awkward and eventually unnecessary as it ends unceremoniously without the 'oomph' the movie seems to be reaching for at all times. The one good thing we get out of it is an explosive dinner scene when the two visit Louis' parents. Again, thank Oprah for making this moment.

The Cliff Notes treatment is given to Cecil's younger son Charlie (Kelley) and another major event in our nation's history, The Vietnam War. The poor kid is barely in the picture. He and the war can be summed up in three short sentences. People didn't know why we were there. People protested. Soldiers died. Something else we already know. By sticking to this, the movie telegraphs its blow and fails to make me care as much as I should. The punches that floor you are the ones you don't see coming. This one starts with a huge wind-up that's impossible to miss. The truth of the matter is some of the issues could have been alleviated by telling the story through Louis' eyes. That would likely force some things to be fleshed out instead of skimmed over. Besides, Louis is a far more interesting character than his one-note father. Of course, this might give us a completely different film than the director intended.

Fortunately, all parts of The Butler are well acted. Terrence Howard gives us a great slimeball while Cuba Gooding Jr. shines as the comic relief. Also funny is Liev Schreiber as an abrasive Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. James Marsden does a spot-on JFK, but it's Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy that gives us one of the movie's most heartfelt moments. It's another instance nearly ruined by too much narration, but it still manages to work.

By the end, this is a movie that feels oddly bloated and deflated all at once. The stronger parts of the movie are a bit overdone while the weaker parts are half-baked. The narration usually states the obvious, robbing prior or upcoming scenes of power. Finally, it wraps itself up in a nice, neat bow of sentimentality. Honestly, given the importance of the occasion, I can hardly blame it. However, the impact of these scenes depends largely on how you already feel about that occasion. They don't supply any of their own juice. Thankfully, the whole thing is well performed and very well paced. The run time flies by and we enjoy the people with whom we're spending time. This makes it a solid movie that takes looks at important parts of our collective past. Just understand that, for the most part, these are fleeting looks.


  1. Good review Dell. It gets very preachy by the end, but for the most part, everything leading-up to it was interesting, as well as heartfelt. Especially since everybody in this clearly came prepared to work their rumps off.

    1. Thanks. They definitely worked hard on it as it is a very earnest film. Just has some shortcomings.