Lee Daniels’ The Butler Review
By Gabriel “Big Gabe” Alcantara of Stuffed Burrito Entertainment
Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker and Oprah serve up some well intended historical drama.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American man who served as a butler in the White House during the course of eight presidential terms. During this time, he becomes an eyewitness to many significant events that took place during the Civil Rights movement and other notable events of the 20th century.
The film is inspired by a Washington Post article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” which is about a man named Eugene Allen. While I’m sure Allen lived an extraordinary life and had many wonderful opportunities others couldn’t even dream of, I just don’t think his accounts were good enough to make a great film. Now hold on, chill… I am NOT saying this is a bad film. I, in fact, enjoyed it, but it does have a lot of problems that I just couldn’t ignore.
First, let’s be positive and speak on what’s good about Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Obviously, Forest Whitaker gives a good and very likeable performance as Gaines. Oprah Winfrey, who stars as Cecil’s alcohol abusing wife, Gloria was actually very good all around. She, at first, is a very unlikeable character but eventually undergoes some changes. I’ll say it right now, she actually has better character development than Cecil. Cuba Gooding Jr., who seems to be working hard to make himself relevant in Hollywood again, plays Carter Wilson, a fellow White House servant who works alongside Cecil. I enjoyed seeing Cuba play this wise-cracking supporting character. Also working alongside Whitaker and Cuba was Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway, another fellow servant. He was great in his small but relevant role. David Oyelowo was also really good as Cecil’s idealistic son, Louis, who leaves home to join the Civil Rights Movement.
Another positive is the fact that this film is very watchable, entertaining and has some well placed humor. There are plenty of good messages about family and doing what’s right. It moved at a very swift pace and always had my attention. However, this is where some of the problems of the film come into play. Because it’s such a swiftly paced film, it just seems to brush through some of history’s most significant moments like a Cliff’s Notes Book. Just when I found myself engaged in one event, it quickly transitioned to something else entirely. Example: During the John F. Kennedy administration, Cecil and ol’ JFK, played by James Marsden, who really nailed that Massachusetts accent, have a touching moment together leading me to believe this would be the most significant portion of the film. Nope, in no time, Kennedy’s tragic fate happens and we move on to the next president. The film is 2 hrs and 13 minutes and I understand how difficult it must be to tell a person’s life story in that short amount of time but the way they try to cram in so many moments of Cecil’s life and moments of history just didn’t allow me to become emotionally invested. Truth is, although I liked Cecil, I didn’t see him being all that important. He was just a man caught up in historical moments.
This movie has a large amount of big named stars and that’s an issue as well. I usually say if you can get a big star to be in your movie, go for it. Yet, this movie just seems to waste some of these actors’ time. With the except of Marsden as JFK, all of the actors chosen to play the presidents were miscast. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lymdon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Rickman playing Reagan is oh, so wrong. Ohhh, no, no, no, no, no! None of the presidents have more than seven minutes of screen time, I guarantee you. It just seems like this film has big names just so they can appear on the poster.
Now as far as Lee Daniels goes, I’m not a big admirer of his work as a director. Shadowboxer from 2005 is a piece of shit and I didn’t care for The Paperboy. Precious is still his finest achievement. What I can say about his previous films is they are gritty. They have a distinct, non-mainstream style that fit the tone of each subject. The Butler is by far his most mainstream film to date and because of that, it feels very safe and doesn’t take on too many chances. Even when it dares to be brave by showing confrontations between racist white folks and blacks, it just feels heavy-handed and forced. They even display a Klu Klux Klan attack on a bus holding civil rights activists in a choppy, low frame rate slow motion fashion as if to demonstrate how awful those events were. Um, you don’t need to slow down the frame rate to show us how terrible those events were. In fact, those scenes might have been more effective if they were show in real time. Oh, well. There are some moments that feel downright corny but there are some moments that feel authentic and heartfelt as well. The story behind The Butler isn’t fully compelling and most definitely has nothing new to cinema but it is at times well told and neatly packaged. It’s a film I’m sure will delight audiences but should really fade away with time. I’m sure Lee Daniels and the people behind this project are expecting and even begging for some Oscar nominations but this is not an Oscar contender, in my opinion. It’s a smooth sailing, solid effort and really nothing more.
Now I’m about to give my rating and I’m sure it’s going to seem a bit odd considering I seem to have more complaints than praises for the film but it’s a good movie with good intentions and despite these flaws that stick out like a sore thumb, I came away liking Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
My Rating: A Generous 3.5 outta 5