Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Danny Strong
The history of this nation has been a tumultuous one. Although great progress and triumph has resulted in the arena of freedom and democracy, the blights of slavery and civil rights remain as the most bitter struggles between class and race in the United States. Lee Daniels is a filmmaker who has made a strong impact in just a short while. A black man, Daniels burst onto the scene with his inspiring, albeit somber, film Precious, highlighting class and racial struggle in New York in the late 1980s. Now with The Butler, Daniels travels further back into history to highlight the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s, as seen through the life of Cecil Gaines, a simple butler who grew up on a cotton farm, but found his way into the most politically powerful house in the country, the White House.
Based on the real life Eugene Allen, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was born on a cotton farm in Georgia. After witnessing the murder of his father, a lowly worker, by the farmer, Gaines was made a house servant by the farmer’s mother. He soon ran away to find a better life for himself, however, and through the tutelage of an elderly black man, Gaines took up the profession of being a butler. He worked his way all the way up to a position in the White House, where he witnessed history from the Eisenhower administration all the way through the Reagan administration. He was dedicated to his work, which ultimately strained his relationship with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who defied his father’s wishes by joining the dangerous civil rights fight.
The film’s opening serves as a cautionary scene for all those expecting something different. The lack of subtlety and heavy handedness contained in the opening scene may be unmatched by all that follows, but it sets the tone for the whole film. To be honest, I thought I was in for quite the fight, a long night trapped in the movie theater drudging along to the finish of this two plus hour film. Heavy handed films are generally not my thing, which is probably why I struggled to embrace Lee Daniels’ latest. Yet, once I learned to embrace it for what it was, I found myself settling nicely into the story, which manages to shoehorns every bit of significant civil rights history in the film, along with a slew of famous actors parading around as presidents.
The best way I can describe my reaction to the film, I guess, is that it was good…in spite of itself. So many elements in the film didn’t seem to work, yet by the end of the film I couldn’t help but feel slightly moved and mildly entertained. I couldn’t get on board with Daniels’ style, which often consists of overplaying the drama, and sometimes resting on a moment as if winking to the audience saying, “Isn’t this great?” or “Wasn’t that funny?” No more so than when Oprah is on screen. The camera seems to settle on her as if glorifying, deifying the actor, not the character, which took me out of the film, especially because Oprah, who has been away from acting for some time, certainly struggled in the role at times. She had great moments too, which I guess is fitting for the film, some good, some bad.
The one constant in the film, however, is Forest Whitaker in the lead role. He has proven to be a rock of an actor, always bringing his best. I will forever appreciate the work of Forest Whitaker and always be interested in his next role. Daniels plays up the melodrama, and brings us a moving story in a very heavy handed manner. It seemed to rub me mostly the wrong way, but it was Daniels’ intent to be melodramatic. It was his intent to be heavy handed. That’s what the film was going for, and in that vein the film really was a success. In other ways it managed to capture the emotion and fervor of the times and deliver a surprising experience, given everything else that wasn’t working. For that reason I hesitate to fully endorse the film, but I can’t say I didn’t at least somewhat enjoy myself during the process.
**1/2 – Average
P.S. If you, like I, are irked by the arrogantly obnoxious inclusion of Daniels’ name in the official title of the film, know that they were forced to change the title due to a lawsuit brought on to them by Warner Bros. over a 1916 short film of the same name, making Warner Bros. obnoxious, not Daniels.