REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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Forrest Gump was also just an oblivious witness to history, which was completely believable.  Cecil Gaines is portrayed as an active shaper of our history, a claim which the film does little to back up.  To its credit, “The Butler” does include an interesting perspective from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (another character in the film’s living history portrait gallery) to highlight how some African-Americans who may be in subservient positions are actually primed to be quite subversive agents.  This thematic thread would have been a great foundation for the entire film, yet it remains rather unfulfilled as Cecil is apparently a trusted member of the White House cabinet and not just a quite voice of humanity.

Strong also bungles the handling of Cecil’s family life, which is actually far more interesting than the proceedings in the White House but woefully underdeveloped.  His wife Gloria seems to serve no purpose for the film other than to provide a role for Oprah Winfrey, who improves the luster of anything she touches (so long as it isn’t her own television network).  The tension between Cecil and his son Louis, played by rising star David Oyelowo, provides for interesting discussion on diverging generational attitudes on race in America.  But who needs that when you can watch the LBJ poop on the White House toilet?  “The Butler” chooses surface novelty and one-sided revision over real depth at every opportunity.

Moreover, where it was merely boring for the first two acts, “The Butler” really slides in its final act.  (CAUTION: Some might consider these spoilers.)  The film explicitly links Ronald Reagan to Alex Pettyfer’s Georgia plantation owner, who rapes Cecil’s mother and murders his father, when he does not take swift action on Apartheid.  Suddenly, it seems as if Cecil is laboring for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie from “Django Unchained,” and it weighs on his conscience so much that he cannot continue to work at the White House.

Rather than sticking to real life Eugene Allen’s story, a hard-working man who rose to the highest rank of the White House butlers, Cecil Gaines of “The Butler” ends the film as a reformed Uncle Tom who redeems himself by going to jail protesting apartheid and voting for Barack Obama.  Daniels and Strong could have ended the film on an even more positive note by closing with Gaines’ invitation to the White House State Dinner to show how the most powerful person in the United States recognized his hard work.

But sadly, this invitation is turned into a racist Reagan publicity stunt.  Like much of the real history of “The Butler,” reality has been refashioned and rewritten to push an agenda.  By developing Cecil with little personality and making him little more than who he works for, the filmmakers find a rather reductive way to honor a man whom they would certainly appear to admire.  C-1halfstars

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One response

19 08 2013
Marshall

As a sort of postscript to my review, I suggest that anyone interested in seeing what I thought “The Butler” had the potential to be read the poem “We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

You can read it at: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw8.html

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