Lee Daniel's The Butler (2013)

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Movie Review written by: Born Movie Reviews
RT Critics Rating: 7.2/10

Born Movie Reviews' Rating: 8/10

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (2013) - Lee Daniels

Although Lee Daniels had a previous success with the film Precious, something tells me that he is becoming another Spike Lee, and I do not think that is a good thing... At least Daniels knows how to pour his passion into his pieces without being preachy or completely one-sided.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African American who eyewitnesses several significant events regarding civil rights in the 20th century during his 34-year service as a White House butler, from Eisenhower to Reagan. He is married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and has two children, the eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) being a constant fighter for equal rights. As years and decades progress, Gaines finds himself torn between the world of the whites and the world of the blacks.

To avoid confusion on whether or not this film is worth seeing, and the fact that there are more flaws than there are strengths, I will point out the problems first:

For each president in the film, they were all well portrayed for each of their screen time, which is sadly only about fifteen minutes each, which slowly leans into the problem with The Butler: the pacing and directing. Each presidency in the film feels episodic, and when one presidency ends, the next one instantly begins, with text revealing how many years have passed. The problem is the film awkwardly transitions at this point, which, due to the amount of presidencies, happens at least four to five times throughout its narrative.

In terms of casting the historical figures, they were great. Robin Williams plays Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden plays John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Also, you get a nice cameo appearance of Jane Fonda as Reagan's wife. Regrettably, given all of these great actors, they are "just there" to play the character. Honestly, they could have been played by any actor who just needs to look similar to the presidents.

Unfortunately, this type of episodic uneven narrative also applies to every historical event that the film portrays, from the Freedom Riders to the Black Panthers. In terms of historical accuracy, the film stays faithful, and efficiently chooses real black and white footage or real radio broadcasts to portray these events in the most realistic way possible. The problem that this causes, though, is that the film ultimately begins jumping between telling the story of Cecil and telling us the horrors that occurred out in the streets. Sometimes, the realistic footage can come off as heavy-handed gimmicks that gets the audience's emotions to be manipulated. At the same time, in some way, The Butler can feel like a history lesson of which civil rights event came first and which event came next. For sure, there are many moments in the film that are excellent. There is a scene where Cecil is invited to a state dinner. The aftermath of that is brilliantly staged. Sadly, the rest of the film can feel like a history mini-series crammed into two hours and twelve minutes.

If I can make one correction to The Butler, it would be, strangely, to extend the film by another hour. Stretch out the narrative more. Give each historical event some space for the audience to breath and let us feel the amount of time that has passed. Give some extra room for Cecil's younger years so that we become more emotionally compelled. The film may be a biopic about the civil rights movement, but it is still "a film made to tell a story," and if this means it would become a three hour long historical epic, then so be it. It's for the good of the movie as well as us, the audience. Gone With the Wind was four hours long and it needed to be.

Without Forest Whitaker playing the lead and an appealing cast, The Butler would be worth practically nothing. Whitaker gives one of his best performances, on par with his haunting portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Through facial ticks, eye twitching, and pauses between line deliveries, Whitaker delivers his character's feelings, thoughts, and emotion through to the audience. Even when the narrative focuses more heavily on the history of the civil rights movement than the actual character of Cecil, Whitaker holds enough power to carry the film on his shoulders. I would not be surprised if Whitaker receives an Oscar nomination for Actor in Leading Role.

Backing up his performance is a very lovable supporting cast, including a surprisingly devoted performance by Oprah Winfrey, who portrays a caring wife and mother torn between her two sons' lives and the constant absence of her husband. Oyelowo plays a very determined and passionate fighter for African American rights throughout the film. You feel and root for him in one of his main scenes that involves sitting at a counter, as well as any chemistry moments between him and Whitaker, as father and son. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays the lead butler in the White House and one of Cecil's best friends, playing the stereotypical comic relief character. Almost every supporting act here is made to enhance our attention on Whitaker's performance as our most lovable butler.

At the end of the day, even though The Butler suffers from more problems than it does strengths, the film is a prime example of its strengths outweighing its flaws. Despite its problems, the movie is filmed and put together with a passion, with strong efforts from both cast and crew. With this kind of scope, the film could have ended up a whole lot worse. It is inevitably ambitious and bold, and that alone deserves respect.

In conclusion, The Butler serves as an emotional Hollywood-style epic that revolves around the experience of African Americans in the land of the free, while following just a simple little man in a simple family. In certain ways, you can call the film Forrest Gump Civil Rights Version. It has a similar sentimentality. It may be short of greatness for directing and storytelling, but The Butler is still passionately executed with an exceptional cast and is inevitably tender to watch.


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