Lee Daniel's The Butler Review
Lee Daniels' The Butler (called so because people might confuse it with the obscure 1916 short film The Butler - and yes, that is sarcasm!) is the story of Cecil Gaines who went from working on a cotton farm to being the White House butler. Of course, this is not some odd job he does for a few weeks before moving on. He takes the job during the Eisenhower administration and remains until the Reagan years. Being in his position, Cecil essentially has a front row ticket to the most important changes in America's civil rights issues. Of course, he is not alone in this as he has a family who struggle with their own issues. In particular, he has two sons who are going in opposite directions - one going in the radical fight - even going so far as to join the Black Panthers. The other is sort of the white sheep of the family who proves the adage that "no good deed goes unpunished." Cecil has to balance his private life with his work relationship with the White House all while observing and sometimes taking part of the radical and sometimes violent shifts in America's civil rights movement.
This movie has a pretty large scope, and that is simultaneously one of is strengths and its weaknesses. While I will discuss what makes this a weakness, I will first talk about why the scope is a highlight. We see the changes Cecil, his family, his country and most importantly, his boss go through over the course of 50 years. I mentioned the change in Cecil's son Louis. He goes from college student to activist. There are some genuinely effective scenes where he practices sit-ins with his classmates and then attends a real-life sit in. Facing nothing but violence and hatred for his troubles causes Louis to become Violent and aggressive as well. For Cecil, this is a far cry from the little boy who Cecil pushed to do his homework.
The family dynamic in this film works because it shows both the grand scale effects of the civil rights movement. Its effects stretched across the nations and all the way into people's homes. It was not just a time where whites and blacks were divided, but blacks were divided among each other. While it would seem like Louis should be elated about his father's success, he instead views his father as an Uncle Tom who is subjugated to the man. Even a discussion of Sydney Poitier leads to a very intense discussion. It is an interesting dynamic because it is not as Cecil is a stranger to racial violence as he witnessed his own father murdered in coldblood right in front of him. For Cecil, he is just a little more wiser to the world and wants to keep his family together. However, he still has his limits.
As effective as these scenes are, its pro-Civil Rights message can be a little heavy handed. Although acknowledging Marin Luther King and his assassination was a good move, Louis's encounter with him comes off as a little contrived. Not surprisingly, the movie ends with the election of Obama. I'm ambivalent about this because it does make sense to acknowledge America's first African-American President, I believe movies should refrain from discussing in-office Presidents because there is not an objective historical perspective on them yet. Also, there is another tag where the movie admits that it is dedicated to the civil rights activists. While the filmmakers' hearts are in the right place, I do not think they need to hammer this point home.
Performances in this movie are pretty solid. Forrest Whitaker has to play Cecil through multiple generations. He changes from the spry, ever-ready man in his 30's to the worn-down grandfather and every stage in-between. He is a loving family man, but he has his limits. When his son pushes his overtly violent agenda on the rest of the family, he draws the line. Oprah Winfrey puts her acting pants for the first time in years and goes through similar changes. As Cecil's wife, Winfrey clearly bares the weight of the world, but still maintains her strength. Of course with the problems she faces - battles with the bottle, being hit by fast-talking Terrence Howard (another good performance), she resorts to the bottle.
The depiction of the Presidents is a bit hit and miss. To their credit, the filmmakers did a little out of box thinking for the casting. And the results are mixed. The casting choices come off like Saturday Night Live's choices: If you squint your brain, they kind of make sense, but they still seem a little off. Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan may be the least likely casting choice in a long time, but he does a really good job. Of course, Alan Rickman is an incredible actor so that is not too much of a surprise. The voice is not perfect, but I guess that is the cost of having one of the greatest, most recognizable voices in the world. Although the makeup department deserves some credit, the resemblance is surprisingly accurate. Live Schreiber - another fine actor - is very engaging as Lyndon Johnson. LBJ is depicted as very boisterous man who makes outrageous demands on his staff such as holding a meeting from the john. Though as entertaining as Schreiber is I can not overlook the simple fact that he looks nothing like LBJ!
James Marsden seems like a logical choice for Kennedy, but he has a little trouble with the voice - a pretty bad sign since JFK has one of the most recognizable voices in history. John Cusask is one of my favorite actors, but he does not make the best Nixon. He does his best, but it's hard to look at him in this film and not see Cusack. Of course, it does not help that there have been some truly great Nixons in the past - Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's Nixon, Dan Hedaya in Dick (no, that's not a typo - a farce that claimed Deep Throat was really two high school girls features one of the best Nixons). Though I have to admit, even if they don't all succeed, there is a certain endearing charm in watching
To be honest, the depiction of the presidents is also a bit superficial. The first sign of this came with Robin Williams's Eisenhower. Eisenhower is the first President we see and he pretty much comes and goes. It seemed so odd seeing an actor as popular as Williams making what was essentially a cameo as a President as important as Eisenhower. He has one nice scene where he has a chat with Cecil, but it does not feel fleshed out, and says almost nothing about Eisenhower other than he liked to paint. And that is a pretty good summary of the way the presidents are depicted. Even Cecil would have been privy to the most intimate moments of the leader of the free world, the movie almost never takes the time to tell us anything we did not already know. Yes, Nixon was two-faced and neurotic. Yes, Kennedy was handsome and charismatic. Then again, the movie also straight-up LIES about Ronald Reagan's stance on civil rights, but that's politics and I don't want to go there...
Still, even if the movie only scratches the surface of the Presidents, their scenes are generally enjoyable. One good scene involves Cecil overhearing a conversation where Nixon admits he supports civil rights just to earn the black vote. What really makes this scene work is the way Whittaker is clearly internalizing his pain and choking back his true emotions because he wants to keep his job.
Overall, Lee Daniels' the Butler is a good movie in lieu of its flaws. Do I recommend it? That is a tough call. One's enjoyment of this movie is largely in tune with the way one watches movies. Those who are in touch with the emotional qualities will definitely take more from this movie than those who are a little more analytical. As someone who views movies both ways, I can honestly say I enjoyed Lee Daniels' The Butler. There are definitely better movies about African-American history (Malcolm X, The Color Purple and Glory all come to mind), but this is still worth checking out. However, I would rank it in the good-but-not-great category.
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