Good call on making it Lee Daniels’ The Butler, because there would have been a whole lot of confusion differentiating this movie, from the 1916 short film of the same name.
The years from 1952 to 1986 saw a lot of change. Change in economy; change in society; change in people; change in politics; and just change in general. However, the one thing that didn’t change in this world was Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), and the job that he had as a White House butler. Remember though, he was the butler for more than 8 presidential terms, and saw them all: He started with Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and ended with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), and witnessed all of the change, the turmoil, the happiness, the problems, and all of the social happenings that occurred in our country, and had the best seat in the house. However, on his home-front, away from the very white, very rich people who lived in the nation’s capitol, Cecil Gaines found it a little hard to keep everybody in his happy, mainly his drunken wife (Oprah Winfrey) and rebellious, but racially-inspired son (David Oyelowo).
When you see a movie like The Butler (which I will continue to call it for the rest of this review), you have to know what you’re getting yourself into right from the start. Obviously its going to be predictable, ham-handed, preachy, episodic, and beyond earnest, but that’s what you expect with something that people are considering “The Civil Rights movement meets Forrest Gump“, right? But like with most movies of this type of nature, if you can get past all of the politics of what the story’s trying to get across, then you can actually find yourself a bit touched by this story, even a little inspired. Nope, I am not black and nope, I am not a Civil Rights activist that still fights to this day, but I’ll be damned if this movie didn’t make me want to raise my fist up to the white man!
What’s very strange about this movie though, and what ultimately does it itself in, is that it’s seemingly two movies spliced into one, 2-hour-long feature. One is a flick about a meek and kind butler working for these rich, white politicians who are sometimes as mean a they come; while the other is a flick about a father and a son who obviously love and care for one another, but can’t find an agreement on where they both stand when it comes to the Civil Rights movement, and what needs to be done in order to get the same respect and gratitude that the white man’s been practically getting forever. One’s very interesting, if a little conventional, while the other is surprisingly well-told, and holds most of the core emotions that Lee Daniels himself has this flick bottle-up, just in hopes that it will eventually cork right open and have everybody crying in their seats.
Eventually the cork does come flying out and the emotions do run high, but it could have hit harder, had the other-half of this movie not been so coincidental.
And yes, I do get that if Gaines’ story didn’t have some sort of meaning in the grander scheme of things, then ultimately, we wouldn’t have a freakin’ flick; but some of this is just a little too hard to let slide by. A couple of scenes with Gaines and the president-at-the-time felt honest, realistic, and believable (mainly the ones with JFK, played very well by James Marsden, who not only looks, but feels the part, for as short of a running-time as he gets), but others just claw their nails into your face, just trying their hardest to get a tear out of you. The scenes with Nancy and Ronald Reagan mean well, but end up somehow spitting in the face of both of those familiar faces, making them seem more like fame-whores, rather than actual humans, that were considered at one time, the saviors of this country. I guess hating on Nixon is all fair game by now, but the Reagans? Really?!?! Oh well, maybe it’s just me, but something with their story left a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth.
But then of course we have the stronger-half of the movie: The father-son drama, that’s more compelling than it ought to be. I don’t know who to chalk up the credit to for this part of the movie working the most, so I’ll just give it to all involved with it. Firstly, Lee Daniels has never really impressed me with anything he’s done yet as a director, mainly because the dude’s nowhere near being subtle. Even Precious, as dramatic as it was, was completely over-the-top and got away with it all, because it was adapted from something people consider “truer than art”. Didn’t see that at all, but whatever. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid on that notion, but hey, I guess it’s time to get blind-sided every once and awhile, right?
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that Daniels doesn’t pull as many punches here, and it shows. When he keeps it grounded in a sense of comforting reality, you feel closer to these characters and have an emotional-placement in them and what it is that they do. Sometimes Daniels gets a little too over-his-head with various cuts to news footage of the South, where it was practically legal to kill a black person (only if you were a white person that is), but overall, the guy made sure that his story stayed on track and never lost sight of what he was really trying to tell us here. Maybe Gaines’ story didn’t impact the world like Daniels thinks it does, but it definitely is a story worth telling, especially on the big screen, and you can tell that Daniels loves that fact and doesn’t want to lose us, or our interest.
Like I was saying though, the aspect of this movie that mainly keeps it going throughout is the father-son relationship between Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo, two actors who give their best work in a long time, especially for the former, who has been churning out dull-role-after-dull-role ever since he won “The Big One” way back in ’06. Both characters, Cecil and Louis, are fighting a fight and doing it all for a cause; and that’s racism. But what separates one from the other is how they’re doing it. Cecil stays loyal, workable, and dedicated to his job, just to show that a black man can make a living in the White House, even if he isn’t at the head of it; while Louis, on the other hand, believes that taking to the streets is the one, and possibly only, way to get your voice heard and to make matters finished. At first, when he’s teaming-up with MLK, it’s all about resilience and control, but once the man gets assassinated, and Malcom X takes over the wheel, then it all becomes about violence, installing fear into society, and doing a whole bunch of other questionable acts that would end anyone in a slammer, regardless of their skin-color.
Anyway though, I’m avoiding the fact that these two, despite them being both father and son, are fighting the same battle. They want to speak their minds and be heard for the rest of the world to take notice of, but are doing it completely differently, if not at the same time. But they don’t disagree with how either goes about it, and that just causes more friction between the two, even when they aren’t together. It’s very clever how Daniels stretches this aspect of their story, and it never gets old or over-done, especially since Whitaker and Oyelowo inject their characters with some real-life heart and trouble. Whitaker gives the type of tour-de-force performance that always is able to get his name noticed come Oscar season, but it’s mainly Oyelowo who shows us that he’s capable of taking someone who’s a little too young and brass to fully get a grip on the world, and still be arrogant about it. Yet, at the same time, still fully gain our sympathy because we know his heart is in the right place, it’s just that he doesn’t have the total understanding on what the world means or where it’s going to end up. Pretty interesting stuff once you think about it, and thankfully, Daniels doesn’t hammer that idea in too much, to where it practically becomes over-shadowing everything else; even if it still does, unintentionally so.
And the rest of the ensemble is great too, if not a bit too stacked for it’s own good. Going into this movie, I felt like I was going to be annoyed to high heavens of Oprah Winfrey here as Cecil’s wife, Gloria, all because it seemed like a piece of stunt-casting used just to get the movie’s name out there more and more for the rest of the world to see (because honestly: Everybody loves Oprah!). I have no qualms with Oprah, but it seemed like a dumb idea to cast her here, if not a very obvious one. However, the woman totally shocked the hell out of me with her portrayal here because she never over-does it, always brings out something new within this character, and charmed me with every scene she was in. Heck, she even made me forget I was watching Oprah act as somebody that wasn’t Oprah! Didn’t think it would happen, and nearly thought I was doomed once I saw her face on the big screen, but she sure did show my pretentious ass. Glad she did, too.
Also, glad to see my main man, Cuba Gooding Jr., getting more work and still being able to knock it out of the park. Take note, Hollywood. The man may be on his comeback trail. Guess Daddy Day Camp wasn’t such the career-killer everybody thought it was….okay, yeah, it was. But still, he’s back, baby!
Consensus: Lee Daniels’ The Butler touches plenty of schmaltz throughout it’s 2-hour running-time, but does it so in a way that will actually compel you, while also serving a history-lesson on how far we’ve come as a nation, and how many times we’ve screwed-up in the past. However, the future looks bright and that’s something I feel that is worth seeing, especially during these hard times.
7 / 10 = Rental!!