Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review; "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Lee Daniels first film Shadowboxer was a 2005 flop that starred Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren. His next film, Precious, won numerous accolades in 2009, including Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay. Last year he did not fare so well with the disappointingly written and directed The Paperboy despite a standout performance from Nicole Kidman. Daniels has returned to an African American-based story with Lee Daniels' The Butler (hereby referred to simply as The Butler, to spite the Warner Bros. lawsuit). The Butler is exactly the type of film that will bait Academy Award voters. It is directed by a former nominee, it stars a former winning actor, it features Oprah Winfrey in her first major film role in 15 years (1998's Beloved), it is based on a true story, and it features an entire cast of minority actors. It is a much better film than I had anticipated, but I had very few expectations. Forest Whitaker is a tremendous actor and he does the role justice. I was surprised by Winfrey, though I do not think she can really compete with Meryl Streep come awards season. The Butler works hard to affect its audience emotionally. The importance of racial equality should not be trivialized. A great number of important moments in history are highlighted in the film, though I was disappointed to read that a major secondary arc in the film was entirely created for dramatic effect. I see a great number of allusions to the current battle for marriage equality in the United States. The Butler showcases a great number of talented Black actors, including David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz. On top of that, many well known actors portray former American presidents, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Lee Daniels' The Butler is a wonderfully acted film that gets a little caught up in itself but delivers a very clear message. I only wish that the ending had not been rewritten to avoid an Argo-like self-righteousness.

Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) was raised on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the 1920s. After his father's death he is taught to be a house servant by the estate's caretaker (Vanessa Redgrave). As a teenager he leaves for North Carolina where he finds as a job as a servant in a shop. The master servant treats him as an apprentice and passes on a job opportunity to Cecil. The job is at a hotel in Washington, D.C. It is at this hotel where Cecil meets and marries Gloria (Winfrey). In 1957 Cecil is offered a position as a White House butler during the Eisenhower administration. It is at this time that their eldest son Louis (Oyelowo) becomes the first person in the Gaines family to attend college. He chooses to go to Fisk University, a black college, in Tennessee. Cecil is not a political man and he struggles with Louis' decision to join a group of protesters in the South. The film focuses heavily on the relationship between father and son, husband and wife (which becomes strained after Louis first arrest), and the friendship between the butlers (Gooding and Kravitz).

The film focuses heavily on the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and 1970s, including the start of the Black Panther Party in 1966. I was asked by a friend how much of the film's history and significance I understood considering I was born in the 1980s. It is a very important topic culturally and historically. The right for equality is something that people are still fighting to achieve. It is for this reason that I see such a strong connection between Lee Daniels' The Butler and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Forest Whitaker was also an inspired choice for Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of Eugene Allen). He brings a calm strength to the role that is different from his Oscar-winning performance in 2006's The Last King of Scotland. He is as quiet and introspective as Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is loud and unraveling. The Butler does a lot of things right while being slightly too preachy. It tries to include far too many scenes which makes the plot feel overly inflated. At 132 minutes, the film is too long - though much of that can be left to the conclusion. It does not offer any new insights to the Civil Rights Movement, it is just a story of one man's journey to gain equality.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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