Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler
PLOT: A butler serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986 while his son engages in the Civil Rights movement down south.
REVIEW: LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER could have been an awkward disaster; it has all the makings of being an ungainly, foolhardy mess weighed down by pretension and melodrama. It is not this. In fact, some of it is quite good. There are morsels and crumbs of a very important, vivid experience sprinkled throughout Daniels' film, but these moments are often thwarted by the film's gimmick of displaying actors in strange make-up playing presidents unconvincingly.
The important movie doesn't even really involve the Butler of the title, played by Forest Whitaker; or at least, it doesn't focus on him. It focuses on the butler's son, Louis, played in an extremely effective performance by David Oyelowo. While the father breaks his back in servitude to a string of crusty white commanders in chief, who like their servant but don't necessarily appreciate him, the son is fighting the good fight for an entire race, taking part in Freedom Bus rides and sit-ins in the noxiously racist South. There are several scenes where Louis encounters the full heinousness of the intolerance of the 60s that are stunning and upsetting, extremely well-made stuff. But the movie has a frustrating tendency (in my eyes, at least) to be more interested in the Whitaker's casual interactions with celebrities taking part in an elaborate game of dress-up.
THE BUTLER's biggest fault is in its screenplay by Danny Strong, which wants to cover all the bases as quickly as possible. Hence we visit young Cecil Gaines on a plantation, working for a crummy white family and tragically seeing his mother raped and father killed. It's a thoroughly gut-wrenching section of film, but it lasts all of five minutes, as we zip forward in time to a teenaged Cecil meeting a kindly baker (Clarence Williams III) and learning how to transform into a dignified young man, eventually working as a waiter in a fancy restaurant. It's there where he impresses a White House staffer, who subsequently invites him to work there. The movie can't get to this portion fast enough; it seems we skip over a good chunk of this character's life, which is keeping with the movie's frequent aura of being a "greatest hits" montage of both Cecil's life and the Civil Rights movement.
From there we see Cecil's interactions with the nation's most well-known presidents: Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (a rather ridiculous Liev Schreiber), Dick Nixon (John Cusack, hardly even trying) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). The sequences between the butler and the presidents attempt to display Cecil's grace and respect even while he's privy to major decisions that ultimately effect his family's life; he sees Nixon talking about "gutting" the Black Panthers, even while his eldest son has just joined the radical group. Later, he must confront Nixon - with poise, of course - immediately after the Vietnam war has claimed his youngest son.
Meanwhile, Louis' journey provides far more intrigue: he confronts violence and prejudice head-on, being beaten, arrested and almost immolated by the KKK. He even meets Martin Luther King Jr., has a stint with the aforementioned Panthers, and eventually becomes a politician. His story is so involving that sometimes you wish the other stuff had been scrapped, because Daniels frequently appears to be on the precipice of telling us a moving, important story. Oyelowo is excellent, too; the actor rises to the challenge of overshadowing all the familiar faces THE BUTLER shows us with a terrific, intense performance.
The rest of the main cast should not be slighted; not the ones in funny wax-figure make-up anyway. Whitaker is very strong in his moving, polite portrayal of a man for whom doing his job well is of the upmost importance. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, a loud, dramatic, sometimes drunken woman; Winfrey fully dives into the role with both hands (and teeth) and makes a good showing of it. She's certainly not lost any of her acting talent in the long interim since her last big screen appearance. Cuba Gooding Jr. has a good time with his role as one of Cecil's fellow butlers, mostly there to balance the film's heaviness with some comic relief.
THE BUTLER is a noble effort, no doubt, filled with an earnest spirit of reminding us what black Americans have gone through and how far we've yet to go in race relations. It's not a movie to be disregarded, no matter how much the clunky structure and distracting cameos come close to bringing it off the rails - but it could have been so much more.
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