Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack
Running Time: 2 hrs 12 mins
Release Date: August 16, 2013
PLOT: The story of a butler (Whitaker) who served in the White House for eight presidencies while his son Louis (Oyelowo) is involved with civil rights.
WHO’S IT FOR? If you’re looking for a solid overview of civil rights history, this would be worth a look. As for its guest list star power, only turn to Lee Daniels’ The Butler if you simply enjoy witnessing famous people show up in movies; don’t actually expect great performances from these brief appearances, or anything like that.
EXPECTATIONS: Lee Daniels is one of the more out-there filmmakers working today, his Oscar nomination for Precious still a mystery, and his previous film The Paperboy a strange viewing experience when I finally caught up with it. I was skeptical as to what control a director like Daniels would have with such a large premise, and also a strong leading performance.
Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines: As Lee Daniels’ The Butler evolves from much more than the story about a servant with an extensive employment history, Whitaker’s Cecil remains this film’s gem performance. As he transitions to different ages, Whitaker always has a grace to him, especially evident in his thorough embodiment of an esteemed servant. By the second half of the film, it is clear that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is more than just Whitaker’s story. But when assuming his later primarily poetic significance, he helps make for the film’s strongest, quietest moments.
Oprah Winfrey as Gloria: Quickly canceling any inclination that this would be some of grandiose big screen comeback for the cultural icon, Winfrey plays a part that does little for the story, despite the amount of time spent on it. A couple of scenes especially with Terrence Howard have more significance to Winfrey’s star power (in both the eyes of her audience, and specifically Daniels) than to the rest of the story. As a neglected housewife to a man who becomes wrapped up in another household, she does have a few strong moments (such as Daniels’ personal favorite scene, involving the inquisition about the number of Jackie Kennedy’s shoes). In the end, Winfrey performance is stretched out attempting to have the significance that it doesn’t have, with anticlimactic results.
David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines: A soldier for Daniels’ cause, Oyelowo gives great reason for this movie to be about more than just a butler, working at the same level of strength as Whitaker. Similar to his onscreen father, Oyelowo sells the many evolutions of this character with a definitive and crucial sense of strength. Like his appearance in previous Daniels project The Paperboy, Oyelowo justifies Daniels’ boasting of an artistic license by presenting his moments with palpable urgency.
Various cast as various presidents: Aside from its main performers, the other characters important to Lee Daniels’ The Butler’s vision is the film’s rotating door of presidents, who as a whole make for a bizarre star-filled experience. With these historical figures largely stereotyped down to a single definitive feature (Kennedy is called “smooth,” Johnson has his dogs) acting becomes a free-for-all of effort, with an actor like Robin Williams wearing a bit of makeup, slightly changing his voice. Whereas on the other hand, John Cusack does the opposite with his version of Richard Nixon, simply showing up on set. In the end, it is Alan Rickman’s embodiment of Ronald Regan that seems to bare the most resemblance to the figure, and the one who serves the bigger picture.
TALKING: While domestic interactions between Cecil and his family members can ring true, the movie’s goal of consolidating history often turns his interactions with the presidents into chapter titles. With that being said, dialogue does well to open the discussion that Lee Daniels’ The Butler wants to have, especially in a scene in which Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Nelsan Ellis) makes the argument that a black domesticated man is a crucial key for progress, instead of cyclical servitude.
SIGHTS: When looking at the film’s production design which crosses decades and numerous locations, one wouldn’t notice the corners cut by Daniels and his magical budgeting for this heavily-cast independent project. However, this isn’t the case with makeup for its presidents, with this film in particular giving up on that crucial aspect and often making a weird comedy out of its prominent cameos. As for how Daniels envisions his scenes, Lee Daniels’ The Butler has a striking gracefulness with his visuals.
SOUNDS: From the very beginning, classical music sets a calming tone for this movie, something the plot seems to tune into even when it gets the most hectic. Using a simple descending string motif that sounds borrowed from Clint Eastwood’s scores, Lee Daniels’ The Butler maintains a restrained, prettier mood with the help of music that is welcoming by ears, if not repetitive.
BEST SCENE: Providing the type of difficult picture of true history not often seen, a depiction of the famous “sit-ins” shows this movie working at its most passionate.
ENDING: “I know my way around.”
REWATCHABILITY: In its first viewing, it is certainly a curious experience to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler unravel itself, especially with expectations that he creates for himself. Would a second viewing poke more holes in a decent experience, or enrich it? I am not sure. At the very least, I assume there is little that can be redeemed about the glaring makeup corners cut with this movie
Lee Daniels’ The Butler is less the biography of a servant of the White House, or even that of his politically active son, but that of a movement. The characters played without a tinge of ham in this sometimes hammy production by Whitaker and Oyelowo are essentially people living in a montage of American history, at the center of crucial events from the past fifty-plus years that are talked about in schools, but rarely in mainstream films. Whitaker’s Cecil interacts with all of the presidents before they make their biggest decisions; Oyelowo’s Lewis is a member of each evolving movement, getting arrested a numerous amount of times while also talking to Martin Luther King Jr. before coming a Black Panther, etc.
As with his previous efforts, Daniels flashes around his artistic license heavily here, but his audacious storytelling succeeds on this strength of his two leads, and on the gracefulness that he treats his expansive story with. His desire to present so much history, while also maintaining the dramatic attention of his audience, is in the end benefitted by this movie’s PG-13 rating. Of course, Daniels is more ready than others to embrace the imperfections of certain things, which succeeds in preventing this movie from being anything stronger than more than decent historical camp.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10