The Butler

‘The Butler’ tells the story of – oh wait, let me backtrack. Lee Daniels has got Tyler Perry Syndrome and has decided to call his latest film ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’. I guess he didn’t want to put his name on his previous film ‘The Paperboy’. Thankfully, Nicole Kidman doesn’t urinate on any former US presidents in this movie.

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ has been #1 at the box office for the last two weekends and it might just be the highest grossing film again this weekend (or just behind the One Direction documentary). I decided to finally catch up with it to see what the fuss was about. 
Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker is the fictionalized Cecil Gaines, an African-American who eyewitnesses key events of the last century during his 34 year tenure as a White House butler. Such events include the Civil Rights movement, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal – things we’re not particularly proud of.

As we head into the Fall season and with the Toronto International Film Festival just around the corner, I can confidently say that this movie is total Oscar bait and may receive some accolades (especially in the acting categories). To be sure, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is a good movie – I’m giving it a positive review; but, part of me wishes that the filmmaker didn’t try so hard to get my tears. Even though he almost succeeded in that attempt, the moments where he is trying to make us feel uplifted, proud, and have us reach for our Kleenex are the weakest parts of the film – I was surprised that the “For Your Consideration” caption didn’t appear at the bottom of the screen during such scenes. This is a movie filled with powerful scenes and great performances and I think a little more subtlety could have made this a great film instead of a good one.

But, it is a good film and good movies should be celebrated. The movie’s most powerful moment for me: The Butler and his kitchen coworkers (played by Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr) are setting up a state dinner; intercutting this scene is David Oyelowo (as The Butler’s son) and a group of nonviolent protestors occupying a racially segregated lunch counter in Nashville. So, we’re seeing this fancy dinner taking place in Washington D.C. while at the same time in the southern part of the States, we’re seeing black people being provoked and beaten by the diner’s customers. Police officers show up to defuse the situation by also beating on the black folks.

It’s refreshing to see a movie that tackles important subjects like the civil rights movement and racism from the black point of view. ‘The Help’, which has a big hit in 2011, sort of scratched the surface on its racial themes and though it was a respectable (and good) motion picture, it lacked daring – the entire story is told from the white point of view; the Emma Stone character begins this writing project when she discovers the maltreatment of black housekeepers. Lee Daniels is an African –American filmmaker and I really liked seeing this story about black people going through this movement. 

The performances are great all around. I think it’s safe to say that Forest Whitaker will be a lock for a Best Actor nomination – he is dignified, elegant, and strong playing the inspiring title character (the kind the Academy likes to reward). Oprah Winfrey (as the butler’s wife) shows great range and even gets to be a little trashy here (given that there were some incredible lead female performances this year, she may not receive an Oscar nom for her work here). But, to me, the real star here is David Oyelowo – his character has the most interesting arc and we see him grow as a 17 year old high school student to a 60-something supporter of the Democrat party. The script does occasionally put him in Forrest Gump-like situations – he is always at the wrong place at the wrong time; the aforementioned diner incident, then he’s attacked by the KKK while traveling on the freedom riders bus, then he’s with the Black Panthers, then he’s there when Martin Luther King gets shot. But, I suppose that’s what this movie is really about – us being able to witness our recent past through the eyes of this family.

More actors: Robin Williams is Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden is John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan, and Obama is Obama on the television sets in the background. Of all the presidential impersonations, James Marsden’s Kennedy is the best – Marsden pulls this off effortlessly – he looks the part and he has the accent down. John Cusack is able to find the insecurities within Nixon and build on that – it’s not a great imitation but the method makes for an unexpectedly good performance; one that doesn’t turn him into a caricature.

In any case, the actors playing the presidents are all background players and inconsequential to the story. What Lee Daniels and his screenwriters do really well here is take these defining political moments in American history and boil them down to human-sized experiences (which is also what ‘Forrest Gump’ did effectively). ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ isn’t a perfect film – I found the film’s episodic structure to be a little messy and found some of the Oscar-clip moments to be somewhat forced. But, this is an important movie and all the members of this large ensemble cast bring their A-game. I’m sure we’ll be talking about this movie again during Awards season. QED.

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