Judge Clark Douglas kept waiting for Billy Bob Thornton to turn up as Jimmy Carter.
One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."
Facts of the Case
Washington, DC. 1957. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) is an African-American butler who works at a hotel in the nation's capital. Life in the pre-Civil Rights era is exceptionally difficult, but he's nonetheless managed to develop a reputation as a consummate professional. Cecil's life changes dramatically when he receives an invitation to begin serving at the White House, and he quickly establishes himself as a valuable staff member. Over the course of several decades, Cecil works tirelessly and serves every American president from Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams, Insomnia) through Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, Die Hard). Though he's an unflappable force on the job, Cecil's domestic life is considerably more turbulent—his work has taken a toll on his relationship with his wife (Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple) and his oldest son (David Oyelowo, Red Tails). Over the course of 132 minutes, The Butler tells the story of the many challenges and triumphs of a great American life.
I have to admit, Lee Daniels is one of the most perplexing major filmmakers working today. He's clearly an immensely talented guy. When he's at the top of his game, his movies have a raw power that is difficult to brush aside. I know that many people have turned Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire into a punchline (partially due to its title, partially due to its melodramatic storytelling), but it has more than a few moments that pack a real punch and tackle some important issues our society would rather ignore. Even so, his fondness for melodrama completely overwhelmed his follow-up project, the compelling-yet-ridiculous The Paperboy (yes, that's the one that features Nicole Kidman saving Zac Efron's life by peeing on him in the wake of a jellyfish sting). Daniels is back in prestige picture mode with The Butler (technically titled Lee Daniels' The Butler due to a legal dispute between the Weinstein Company and Warner Bros.), and his instincts manage to make the film both better and worse than it might have been in the hands of a more workmanlike figure.
It's important to note that Cecil Gaines is not a real-life character, but rather a figure inspired by a real-life individual: Eugene Allen, who did indeed serve as a butler at the White House for several decades. However, by using Allen's life as the springboard for a fictional creation, Daniels gives himself license to turn Cecil into the Civil Rights equivalent of Forrest Gump: a man who's connected to nearly every important aspect of racial conflict in 20th Century America. In the opening scene of the film, we watch as Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey, Rush Hour) is raped by a white landowner and as his father (David Banner, Street King) is shot and killed for daring to question that landowner's actions. A brutal moment, but also an entirely fictional one. Such things did indeed happen, of course, but Daniels has these things (and quite a few others) happen to Cecil directly for dramatic purposes. It's a bold move, but the result is that Cecil too often feels like a composite figure (he is, of course, but it shouldn't feel that way to the audience).
Indeed, artificiality is the thing that undercuts The Butler time and time again. Too many conversations feel forced and hokey, too many sensational real-life events are sensationalized just a little bit more and there's entirely too much stunt casting. The well-known actors playing the Presidents are hit-and-miss (I liked James Marsden's JFK and Alan Rickman's Reagan, didn't care for Liev Schrieber's LBJ or Robin Williams' Eisenhower and was simply perplexed by the ridiculousness of John Cusack's Nixon), but they generally have so little screen time that the primary impression we have of them is, "Hey, it's (insert actor's name here)!" The cast is loaded with talent, but the parade of stars is often distracting. Vanessa Redgrave is perfectly effective as the racist southern matriarch who appears during the film's opening reel, but the character has such a short amount of screen time and is so simply-drawn that there's no real reason the movie actually needed Vanessa Redgrave to play her.
Alternately, the African-American side of the cast fares quite well, particularly Whitaker and Winfrey. Both bring such warm authenticity to their scenes together; the nuance they bring to their complicated yet loving relationship stands in stark contrast to the film's more one-dimensional elements. In his best roles, Whitaker is often an explosive emotional force, but in The Butler he does a masterful job of suggesting all of those strong emotions running beneath the surface. It's a fine piece of work, and a welcome reminder of what a tremendous actor he is (he's been in entirely too many forgettable films during his post-Oscar years). Oyelowo also does strong work as Cecil's activist son, and it's in the exploration that particular relationship that the film digs into some of its most challenging and rewarding material.
While the nature of Cecil's personality and profession demands that he remain silent when moments of conflict present themselves, his son Louis is a much more confrontational individual. Louis is marching and protesting for the rights of his people at every opportunity, and frequently finds himself imprisoned as a result. Eventually, Louis is a member of the Black Panthers, which places him at the center of even more conflict. The differences between the two men leads to a good deal of mutual resentfulness, and the movie regards them both with large amounts of sympathy and a small amount of caution. Cecil could not have attained his important position without an enormous amount of self-control, but he's also silent during moments when he could have spoken out and made a difference. Louis is consistently fighting for what is right, but on certain occasions he permits himself to go too far in his fight against oppression. The film doesn't take sides or cast judgment in hindsight, but simply observes—with a good deal of wisdom—the social and moral complexities of the era. It's in these moments that we're reminded of why we shouldn't simply discount Daniels despite his more unfortunate tendencies. If the director can ever harness his passion and raw talent to the right script, we might be in for something really special. The Butler has its virtues, but it doesn't quite get there.
Lee Daniels' The Butler (Blu-ray) has received a 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that effectively recreates the rather rough look of the film. For whatever reason, Daniels opts for Tony Scott-style overexposure that renders much of the imagery very soft. Colors are pretty wonky at times and flesh tones are all over the place, but again, the film itself is generally responsible for much of this. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quite solid, delivering a smattering of period-appropriate songs and a heartstring-tugging score by Rodrigo Leao with richness and clarity. Some of the more chaotic scenes offer fairly immersive sound design, and dialogue is always clean and clear. Supplements include two featurettes ("Lee Daniels' The Butler: An American Story" and "The Original Freedom Riders"), deleted scenes, a music video (featuring Gladys Knight), a gag reel, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
The Butler is a well-intentioned film, but a disappointingly inconsistent one. It isn't entirely a failure—it contains too many strong moments to be casually dismissed—but it frequently fails to achieve its ambitious goals.
Not guilty, but certainly not the Civil Rights-themed masterpiece it could have been.
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Studio: Anchor Bay
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