Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Posted in 2013 | 2 Comments
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Director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) is apparently taking a page from Tyler Perry’s book of self-promotion.  Let’s hope it does not catch on; I have no interest in going to “Spike Lee’s Oldboy” or “Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.”  That aside, what we have with “The Butler” is a mostly noble effort.  Daniels is not known for subtly, just check out his first two movies.  However, he manages to show more here than he has in the past. Much of the film revolves around the titular butler, Cecil Gaines’ relationship with his eldest son, Louis. Cecil takes an old school approach in trying to gain civil rights through hard work and earning respect, while Louis joins the Freedom Riders and The Black Panthers.  To his credit, Daniels presents both sides of this argument evenly and with respect; if he has an opinion about which route was the right one, it isn’t present here.  Much has been said about the film being based on a true story.  However, it should be pointed out that this is only in the loosest form of the word “true.”  There was an African American butler who served in the White House for 34 years but his name was Eugene Allen.  He was married and had one son (not two) who was never involved in any radical politics.  Much of his early life and how he got to the White House is also exaggerated or fictionalized.  How much any of this matters is really a personal opinion.  But it does suggest that the father and son struggle at the center of this movie was created for a reason and that the central struggle about how to pursue civil rights was a core part of the story Daniels was trying to tell.  Fortunately, that part of the story is the strongest and the relationship between father and son is, by far, the most interesting. Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”) is a brilliant actor of amazing range who is able to show emotions roil across his face while maintaining the professional exterior of the butler.  He manages to imbue Cecil with a dignity and a stubbornness that seem perfectly fitted together. Oprah Winfrey, in her first real acting role since “Beloved” fifteen years ago, plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria.  Here, she lacks the power she has brought to her previous roles, most famously that of Sofia in “The Color Purple,” but still manages to present a complicated character, particularly during her years as an alcoholic.  The various presidents and their wives were gamely played with varying levels of success by Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda.  Personally, I found the Reagans to be the most convincing.  The remaining cast is an almost endless parade of celebrities, including Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard,  Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey (who inexplicably gets third from the top billing, though she was on camera for less than a full minute and had no lines).  But, be warned, a movie does not get this much fire power by taking risks and, in the end, this is a very safe movie.  This is Oscar-bait, so don’t expect anything to complicate the feel good ending.  If you knew nothing of American culture, you would leave the theater thinking you had just seen the film on how we finally solved our race problems in this country, once and for all.  No one like a Travyon Martin or an Oscar Grant will rear his head in the final moments. I found that disappointing.  For a film that tries to take such a broad look at race relations in this country, it might have tried to take a more complete one.  Instead, we end on the newly elected President Obama’s words about a changing America.  If only everything were as simple as it is in like Hollywood.



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  1. Warner Brothers owned the title “The Butler” ( a 1916 silent film) and boorishly sued to block the use of the name for this film. The last minute name change was court-ordered. So I guess the Tyler Perry-esque title was the best they could come up with. And yeah, it was ridiculous to give Carey third from top billing. I’m assuming there was some Diva negotiations going on here.

  2. Thanks for that insight. Although, I have to confess that I’m still a little bit suspicious. Couldn’t they have come up with a less self-aggrandizing title? Why not call it “The Butler: A Witness to History?” That’s the name of the book based on the movie. Or something like “The White House Butler” or “The Butler & The Presidents” or “A Butler, his drunk wife & a Black Panther?” Hell, even “A Butler Well Served By This Election” would have been better. That was the title of the Washington Post article the movie was based on.

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