Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

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The Butler Movie PosterWith the current social climate and concern over racism, it seems an appropriate time for a film about the civil rights movement in America to remind everyone how much has -- and perhaps hasn't -- changed in the last 50 years. In Lee Daniels' The Butler, we witness significant events and the politics that both impeded and fueled efforts by African-Americans and their supporters to effect change.

The Butler was inspired by a true story and tells the story of African-American Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves as a butler in the White House for multiple presidents throughout several decades, including the civil rights movement.

Born in Macon, Georgia in the 1920s, as a young boy Cecil Gaines works in the cotton field with his mother and dad until brutal overseer Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) swiftly and violently tears Cecil's family apart. Cecil is taken into the "big house" by the sympathetic Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), where he learns the valuable skills of a house servant. Recognizing that he will likely suffer the same fate as his father at the hands of Thomas, Cecil travels in search of a new life and employment in a safer environment -- not an easy task in the South.

Desperation drives him to commit a theft for which he could be hanged, but instead he is rescued by hotel butler Maynard (Clarence Williams III). Under Maynard's tutelage, Cecil not only gains experience as a professional servant but how to survive in a white man's world. From there Cecil makes his way to Washington, D.C. where he continues to work as a hotel butler until he is discovered and plucked to the most prestigious location of all -- the White House during the 1957 Eisenhower Administration.

Thus begins the journey of Cecil in The Butler -- as a silent observer of the politics behind the movement that affects himself and his family. While he quietly accepts his fate, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) questions and acts upon the disenfranchisement he and his peers experience. Scenes are intertwined between Cecil going about the daily functions of special events at the White House, and Louis's activism with the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers. Meanwhile, Cecil's wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) deals with the disconnect between her husband and eldest by filling the void with booze and the attention of philandering neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard).

The phenomenal performances of Whitaker and Oyelowo as father and son are award-worthy, as well as those of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil's White House coworkers. Winfrey's performance is noteworthy but often a bit too heavy-handed, which I would attribute more to Daniels' direction rather than her acting ability. Cameo appearances by Williams and Redgrave as well as Mariah Carey as Cecil's mother Hattie Pearl also lend some solid touchstones from talented performers.

Unfortunately, the casting and direction of the gamut of U.S. Presidents is hit or miss at times, with my personal favorite of James Marsden as John F. Kennedy with Minka Kelly in a heart-wrenching performance as Jacqueline Kennedy. The other presidents were too much like caricatures that amuse rather than engage viewers, including Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson and John Cusack as a shifty-eyed Richard Nixon.

I found the costume, set, and art design of The Butler to be so authentic that I found it distracting at times -- wondering where the wardrobe consultant found the flamboyantly colored windbreaker suits from the 1980s that I thought were not so much a part of African-American style. Archival photo and video footage as well as re-enactments helped to ground viewers into the timeline, although I would have preferred the use of the original rather than the staged broadcasts.

The cinematography is well done and effectively captures both personal and historical moments. I enjoyed the framing and recurrence of shots, such as Cecil both young and old polishing shoes.

As much as I wanted to enjoy this historical and personal dramatization, The Butler did not live up to my expectations. Despite the performances of Whitaker and Oyelowo, the movie is too uneven to be engaged in the narrative throughout. The first act nicely sets up the story of Cecil with the second act setting us on the road through the years, but somewhere Daniels loses the plot and focus. The story fast-forwards from the Reagan to the Obama administration in the blink of an eye, derailing the train that had been fairly well paced until that point.

The resolution in the final scenes of conflict within the Gaines family may serve to tie up the untidy story in a melodramatic moment, but is not enough to solidify a film of this nature and caliber of its cast. The story would have been better served had the writer drawn more of a parallel between Cecil's experience with his own father and that between himself and his son. I can only recommend watching The Butler for its performances and some historical value.

Austin/Texas connections: Actor Forest Whitaker was born in Longview, Texas.