August 17, 2013
With all the the name change drama surrounding Lee Daniels’ The Butler, what curious movie aficionado wouldn’t want to check it out to see what why all the fuss? What? You haven’t heard?
Honestly, in a world where few movies offer the opportunity for such a gathering of A-list people of color to star together in a movie that isn’t awash in stereotypes, execs at Warner Brothers should be ashamed of themselves. In a jerk-tactic clearly meant to undermine any box office competition from The Weinstein Company (TWC), they claimed earlier rights to the name “The Butler”, citing an unheard of silent short released in 1916. Even after a heartfelt appeal by the director, ultimately Warner Brothers won in the courts (as they were within their rights according to law, never mind the number of movies in history with the same name…) led to a need to change all promo materials in the 11th hour.
For this critic, this bad sportsmanship and money grubbing made for a far greater desire to see and support it if it is worthy. After all, hundreds of working actors (who were famously paid next to nothing) and crew spent many months creating the end result, whatever its name.
As Daniels will attest, the movie was never meant to be a blockbuster. It was pulled together by a committed team of people who felt strongly about the story needing to be told. Well,“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” isn’t great. It has many issues, but do not discount this movie for its missteps.
The story follows Cecil Gaines from his childhood in the cotton fields to his tenure as butler in the White House. The character is very loosely based on the gentleman Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents. There are times where the stories coincide, but for the most part, the script uses Gaines’ story to construct a family history that spans the civil rights movement and changes in the lives of blacks in the U.S.
It has been negatively referred to as “The Black Forrest Gump,” which is partly unfair, because at the heart it focuses on family.
Cecil and his son are juxtaposed to show the difference between working for change from outside or inside the system. Cecil quietly helps change the way men of color are seen in society working in a traditional role but with dignity. His son, Louis, is working from outside the system, becoming a Freedom Rider, sitting in at Woolworth’s, involving himself with Martin Luther King, Jr., and briefly the Black Panthers.
In the course of the movie, this causes much friction between the two, but it also asks of the audience to consider which side they would be on, and what they would choose were they in the same situation.
It helps that both roles are played so well.
While a story of the civil rights movement is always a worthy topic, it is the acting in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, first and foremost, that makes it worth seeing and supporting.
Forest Whitaker is so good he could have played this role in his sleep. He turns on every trick of subtlety and nuance to carve a real, evolving man, what most of the audience ultimately is meant to see as a silent hero of civil rights, to play the lead Cecil Gaines. Whitaker has never been bad in any movie I can remember, and it is heartening to see him starring once again in a role he can sink his teeth into, especially as it requires a quiet grace that is in utter contrast to his famed role in The Last King of Scotland. Fans of his should flock to see him.
David Oyelowo, as Louis Gaines, has a fire inside the audience can connect with and understand. It is easy from our historical perspective to side with how he works toward change, but in this movie we see his struggle and how the love he has for his family makes his choices he feels are so necessary so difficult for him.
Oprah Winfrey as the family matriarch offers a steady female voice, but we see her own personal struggle, apart from all that is happening outside her own household, to maintain connection and communication with those she loves. She is never any less than fully present in the role, and the audience understands and feels for her even in her worst choices and mistakes.
There are many other actors dropping in and out of the film, it would take forever to go through them all. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz shine the most and are most memorable in their supporting roles.
The main trouble is in the secondary casting and some of the script. The moments that work the most are all about family interaction. It would have been better to focus more on those, and less on snapshots in history, as if a checklist of events were required to get the script green lit.
There is a cavalcade of stars, playing what I would call “Icons R Us,” as presidents and leading historical figures. The roles of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan are played by famous actors who are a distraction, however well they portray them. They are often shown in their most famous garb, and represented with their various well known and storied traits, as with Kennedy’s pained back or Johnson’s beloved beagle dogs.
The recognizability of the actors, like John Cusack as Nixon and Robin Williams as Eisenhower, all but grind the movie to a halt. The two exceptions to this are James Marsden as John Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Marsden shows a compassion and authenticity and transforms himself even without looking a thing like Kennedy, and Jane Fonda disappears completely into Nancy. She is the most inspired cameo in the film.
Ultimately, if the subject of how civil rights has changed America and the opposing ways in which Americans did it is of interest to you, the questions this movie raises and the discussions it will prompt make Lee Daniels’ The Butler interesting enough to see. There are missed opportunities and weak moments in the script to be sure, but not enough to discount it, and the stellar acting by Forest Whitaker is what will make this movie memorable longterm. For those of you who will support Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Warner Brothers’ shame is your gain.