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Any audience, especially civil rights activist and studious historians, deserve better than the conflicted and imbalanced drama The Butler. This more along the lines of Emilio Estevez’s Bobby than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Like the ups and downs of the struggle for equality in American history, it is all over the place in tone, style, and direction. It is sentimental and manipulative yet important and emotionally engaging. Typically, white filmmakers portray this era as a moment where white individuals come to terms with their prejudice and “rescue” those being repressed. Audiences are watching a delicate African American perspective to history. What should be a refreshing experience, which at times can be, ends up bogged down with cliche. Similar to every other heavy-handed awards bait, the performances in The Butler out weigh the story. In the last ten years, this adult Oscar drama genre has become the equivlant to summer blockbusters. Heavy on the special effects (or in the case for awards seasons, heart wrenching acting) while light on the story and/or other attributes to the production…just like the blockbusters. How fitting The Butler is opening during the summer movie season.
Synopsis: LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER tells the story of a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Forest Whitaker stars as the butler with Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and many more. Academy Award (R) nominated Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) directs and co-wrote the script with Emmy (R)-award winning Danny Strong (GAME CHANGE). (c) Weinstein
The story of this White House Butler focuses on a re-enactment of history that African Americans will be proud of, while liberal whites (especially movie critics) will lecture readers on the significance of this story. The fictionalized and renamed Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the White House butler who served eight presidents and had a front row seat to history a la Forrest Gump. The movie version of his life covers the second half of the 20th century and even ends in the early 21st century. Born and raised on a cotton plantation, we witness the brutality of that burdensome class structure and blatant racism. Cecil has two sons Louis (David Oyelowo) who becomes a Freedom Riders, then a member of the Black Panthers and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) who serves in Vietnam War. Society slowly changes it’s attitudes toward African Americans, but the in your face racism is hard to watch, but necessary to confront. As a viewer, we walk through history with Cecile as a man who must remain silent during interactions with the powerful elite. The held back emotional weighs him down especially with his relationships at home with his wife (played by Oprah).
What is the best thing about The Butler was being moved by strong performances while cynically laughing at the horrible ones. Forest Whitaker gave a better, more disciplined and emotional exhausting performance here than his overwhelming supporting performance which won him a Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Surprisingly, Oprah didn’t overwhelm in her scenes like a mother at her child’s wedding as I was dreading. I was on the edge of my seat waiting to roll my eyes. She even showed restraint in a big scene at a White House dinner. She maintained character instead of winking at the camera with a “been there, done that” attitude. It was a very good performance which surprised me! The other White House butlers didn’t add much to the story. Cuba Gooding Jr. was awkward and fell flat as the foul minded comedic relief. Lenny Kravitz was better, in an adequate way. Mariah Carey stunned me in her first few opening scenes in the movie. Her unsettling silence and facial expressions were some of the best acting The Butler offered.
Since it will soon be Awards Season, I can deconstruct were the actors stand. With Harvey Weinstein having her back during awards season, Oprah is a serious contender to win that supporting actress Oscar (which is a typically weak field of contenders). However maybe the real awards race for this movie is the Razzie for worst impression of a President. Robin Williams as Esienhower, Cyclops (James Marsden) as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, or Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (very human and sympathetic portrayed by left leaning Hollywood standards). Contrasting this with Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln was unbearable and embarrassing. Most of these performances are hollow, wooden, cartoonish, and one dimensional. It was as if Lee Daniels intended to portray these old white as out of touch with audiences as a symbolic reminder at how far removed they were from the burdens African Americans faced. Which performance was the worst? As they say in elections, “too close to call.”
Finally, I wanted to take time to declare that The Butler is going to do very well at the box office to the surprise of some box office analysts. The line for people to get into the promo screening was one of the longest I have seen for ANY movie all year! Like The Help and 42, this will have appeal among older adults, African-Americans, casual “church-y” people (evangelicals will be turned off by the Obama love-fest toward the end), and women will flock to it (though the Oprah crowd enjoyed The Help more than 42). This isn’t for the Kick-Ass 2 crowd at all. With the ora of prestige and solid acting performances in The Butler, the end result felt rather stale and sentimental.
So TMB Readers, what did you think? Was Lee Daniels directorial efforts helped or hindered the story? Were the performances from Forest Whitaker and Oprah were as powerful as I thought or over the top? Can we at least agree that the portrayal of the President’s were weak, if not laughable?