Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) (PG-13)
This review contains SPOILERS!
I was walking out of the theater after seeing "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and I happened to notice the wall of posters for movies currently playing and those to come. I saw the poster for the movie I had just seen—it seemed typical of a drama movie. It displays a man's back...he is in a doorway, looking out into the bright and glorious future. How inspiring!
Other posters of "The Butler" have a silhouette of the man, colored in with the American flag...not too subtle, are we?
Below the very long list of actors featured in the movie was the tagline "One quiet voice can ignite a revolution". Really? Did these people even see this movie?
For "The Butler" is most definitely not about one man's voice igniting a revolution—unless the tagline is referring to the title character's progeny; and then in that case, yes the line is fitting. But I think these people actually think that their main character sparked a revolution—not so, as anyone who has seen the movie will tell you.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a movie that seeks to encapsulate all of the civil rights movements, an intimate family portrait, and the administration of seven different Presidents—by any definition, this movie has bitten off more than it can chew.
This movie comes near the beginning of this season's slew of race movies—movies that are intended to pluck heart strings and land themselves a seat at the Academy Awards. The movie I predict to do the best job is the much anticipated "12 Years a Slave", not that you needed to know that...oh well.
While waiting for "The Butler" to start, I saw the trailer for "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"—this movie portrays the iconic man as an action star. It seems like 2013 is a good year for movies about black/white tensions. It's a genre that can never run out of ideas—like the Holocaust. I'm not trying to be mean, but I think that civil rights and the end of WWII are two times periods that never cease to have movies made about them.
As such, I have seen a number of movies concerning racism; and "The Butler" is just another movie...it doesn't stand out at all.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" starts with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the sight of an old man in the White House lobby—then we fade back to Cecil Gaines' childhood on a cotton farm. We are told in voiced narration by adult Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) that cotton was the only thing he knew as a child.
He didn't mind working for a cruel white man (played briefly by Alex Pettyfer) because he got to spend all day with his dad.
In the first three minutes, we are supposed to assume that Cecil and his father have a great relationship—one that is put under strain by the slave handler/owner.
Cecil's mother (cameo by Mariah Carey) is raped by the owner and it is implied that this has happened more than once...this is the situation that the film drops us in when it starts.
Young Cecil provokes his father to do something, so his father starts to speak up to the owner—he doesn't get two words in before he's shot in the head and bleeds out in front of his son.
Then the kindly old mother (she could be an aunt or something, that part isn't spelled out) feels sorry for Cecil and tells him that he should dry his tears—she's going to train him to serve in the house. Keep in mind, they have this conversation while the corpse is sitting right out in front of them....what?
Eventually, Cecil leaves home and finds himself hungry and alone in a white man's world. Perhaps not caring what will happen to him, he breaks into a shop and steals some cakes—getting caught by the black servant/butler. Instead of kicking Cecil out; he bandages his wounds, slaps him for using the "n" word, and makes him into a butler.
Now Cecil will serve white people for the rest of his life—but it's a living, and that's more than a lot of Cecil's cohorts can say.
The time comes where Cecil is offered a position in the White House as a butler and he accepts. This job places him privy to many historical conversations—all which happen while he's in the room and not one of the other five butlers that were mentioned.
Cecil has a booze drinking, cigarette smoking wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey in a return to film) and two sons, Louis and Charlie (I'll give you a hint, only one is important).
Cecil serves and Louis stews...he doesn't like the idea of his father serving gold platters of fine food to white Presidents who don't care about the Negro population.
Louis will become a civil rights activist, an act that will separate him from his father.
So we get to see inside the White House—cue all the cameo appearances. You have Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon, we conveniently forget Ford and Carter, and then Alan Rickman as Reagan. The actors of worth here are Marsden, Cusack, and Schreiber.
Marsden is quiet and good-looking, making Kennedy one of the most human characters of "The Butler"...we feel genuine sorrow when he gets assassinated. Cusack I'm generally not a fan of, plus I wouldn't have cast him as Nixon on physical appearance alone—but he surprises all, quite a good role. Lastly, Schreiber as LBJ—a delightfully crass and good performance.
But here's the movie's problem: it doesn't let the emotions sit long enough. One scene has Cecil comforting the blood soaked Mrs. Kennedy right after John is killed. The very next scene has Cecil and Gloria fooling around with one of Kennedy's ties sitting on the bed next to them....can you say "Yeech"?
But the movie boils down to a relationship between a father and a son—one that is just plain boring.
The films assumes that great people will have had meaningful conversations with our main characters—who knows? Maybe that happened...but then again, maybe not.
All I know is that it took Martin Luther King, Jr. to convince Louis that his father was a good man and Ronald Reagan to ease the tensions between Cecil and his son.
It could have happened, but the movie feels fake.
There are too many instances of cliche moments lined up so perfectly with clumsily worded sentences for this movie to be taken seriously.
One such moment that was good in theory was the beating of activists while we see Cecil set the table. It's comparing the two worlds, fighters and those who abstain from fighting—but it just felt awkward by the time it was finished.
Also, on a tangent, was Terrence Howard really necessary for this movie? It was a subplot that only took time away from everything that actually mattered.
One movie that was twice as effective and half as preachy was "Fruitvale Station"—if you watch anything...watch that.
I was very aware of the fact that I was watching a movie. True story, sure—but I found that I believed more in Whitaker than in Gaines.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is, at its core, stagey and predicable. It's all shades of stereotypical—the thing it was trying to avoid...better luck next time.
Score: 2 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones