Lee Daniels’ The Butler | Lee Daniels | August 16, 2013
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long track record of honoring sweeping historical dramas at their annual Oscar awards. With the release of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a star studded drama set against the backdrop of the twentieth century’s civil rights movement, The Weinstein Company seems poised to pounce and grab Academy voters by their dainty cravated necks. Is Lee Daniels’ film a success? Regrettably, the result is a mixed bag. While having all the profundity and importance that shoots a film into a critic’s considerations, The Butler is defeated by schoolbook topicality and an over reliance on the draw of celebrity.
For The Butler, Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker takes on the role of Cecil Gaines, a career butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue whose story is based upon the life of real-world White House butler Eugene Allen. The film follows Cecil from his traumatic beginnings on a hold-over plantation in Georgia, where as a child he sees his father shot before his eyes, to his prestigious tenure working at the White House from 1957 till 1986.
Cecil watches the tumultuous march of the civil rights movement from behind the closed doors of the White House, and at home where his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) flirts with alcoholism, as their son, a freedom rider and eventual Black Panther, is repeatedly arrested and assaulted as he carries on the torch for liberty.
As a biographical portrait of a man, The Butler is a veritable success. Cecil’s ubiquitous lens delivers a unique perspective on history which is unmatched in its working class singularity. Whitaker brilliantly casts himself in a performance that ranges from prideful professionalism and courtesy, to humble dullardry, and into tense moments of paternal antipathy. At his side, Oprah Whinfrey is similarly well suited in her multi-faceted role that borders between facetious and fiery.
Similarly, this is another terrific performance for David Oyelowo whose character, Cecil and Gloria’s son, James, ages and develops most believably of the three. In constant conflict with parents, we watch James grow from conservative college student, to beret bearing black panther, and into a campaigner for civil liberties. The issues between father and son illuminate a common conflict of conservatism and liberalism that arises between generations, and the scenes involving the entire family play electrically with a family dynamic that lives and screams off the screen. Top that off with a supporting cast featuring Cuba Gooding jr. and Terrence Howard in two comedic relief roles and you’ve got a great set up for a family drama.
That being said, I’m brought to the major problem which bars me from considering The Butler to be a film of Oscar-weight. That is, the much advertised showcase of Presidents portrayed by well-known actors who Cecil interacts with while working at the White house. The portrayals range in quality from Alan Rickman’s quite terrific squinting Ronald Regan to John Cusack’s inaccurate and lecherously slouching Richard Nixon. Even though all of the presidential cameos have their pros and cons, the whole affair comes off like a revolving door of made-for-TV grade reenactments that never quite gel with the rest of the film.
At times, Daniels resorts to stock footage to depict the Presidents and historical events, for example there’s no faux-Carter or faux-Obama. It stands to make me wonder if the use of stock footage and maybe some Forrest Gump-esque effects wouldn’t have served better for Cecil’s White House scenes. As the Presidential circus which features Robin Williams playing Eisenhower and somebody wearing JFK’s shoes at times come off as goofy in the extreme.
Speaking of goofiness, I can’t help but feel as though the very time-period specific costume choices for Cecil and Gloria could be considered somewhat inappropriate. At times it seems as though Daniels’ plays with ludicrous costumes for laughs and entertainment value when there are important and tragic events unfolding all around. There are two examples of this in the film, and while one would be spoiler heavy to reveal, the other involves Cecil and Gloria revisiting the abandoned ramshackle town of Cecil’s youth in Good Will Hunting era Ben Affleck track suits. That scene, which should been utter catharsis for Cecil as well as the audience is completely stripped of its power by the heavy-handed fashion finger pointing on the part of the costume designer Ruth Carter.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable and entertaining film that will maintain your interest. And if you “don’t know diddly-squat” about the civil rights movement, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. But those costumes, in line with a generalized lack of cinematic artistry, prevent me from being able to distinguish The Butler as a genuinely masterful piece of film deserving of the laurels it obviously intends to score.
Regardless of my critical gripes, The Butler is an important story. It’s a terrific tribute to the civil rights leaders who led a revolution in the twentieth century, while also focusing on the working men who are subversive in their own way. Whereas last year’s Django Unchained was a challenge to audiences and Academy members alike, The Butler is an inviting, all-inclusive film about a sadly recurrently relevant topic out of American history. Daniels’ film falls a few notes flat of Oscar Caliber. If it wasn’t for some of the disquieting humor and bizarre casting decisions, I think The Butler would be an honest contender when it comes to the awards season, not that an award would prove anything anyway.