Lee Daniels' The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). The story begins with him as a young man on a cotton farm and quickly breezes over the details of his younger years. His father was killed by the cruel owner of a cotton farm, and Cecil eventually became a butler. He worked his way up to the DC area where he was a butler at a ritzy hotel before landing a gig at the White House in the late 1950's. Eventually, Gaines ends up serving seven presidents: Eisenhower (Robin Williams), JFK (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Nixon (John Cusack), Ford, Carter and Reagan (Alan Rickman). Gaines and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are happy about his gig at the White House, but their son Louis (David Oyelowo) is upset about the racial climate of America. Throughout the movie, you see the two conflicting ideologies of father and son: one who wants to blend in and the other who wants to stand out.
I had this film (I'm just going to call it The Butler for the rest of this review) at #10 on my most anticipated for the rest of the year, but lately my anticipation had faded. I don't know what it was, but I just wasn't sure that this film would be anything but a sentimental mess. The Butler begins with a sucker punch. Within the first five minutes, you see two lynched bodies and the execution of a black man. It told me right away that it wouldn't be the mess I thought that it would. The Butler doesn't pull any punches in terms of showing the horrors of a segregated America. While The Butler has a lack of focus, there are still a lot of missteps that Daniels avoids with this film.
First off, I found a lot of the performances to be very good. Whitaker is a little bland in the lead role. This film has obvious inspirations from Forrest Gump in terms of setup, but it's protagonist is nowhere near as entertaining as the one in that film, and sometimes you can't tell if the film wants you to root for him. Oprah is pretty spectacular. She carries a lot of scenes and she isn't stunt casting. This is a role that fits her. The supporting butlers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz were also worthy additions to the plot and the two actors gave good performances. The presidents were all fine, but most of them did appear to be stunt casting. The standout performance in this film comes from David Oyelowo, who should be getting some serious talk for best supporting actor. He is the emotional center of the film and the character that drives the plot. And he's terrific.
If I have painted The Butler as a weighty and intense look at the Civil Rights era, I apologize, because it's most certainly not. The Butler is a lot of fun and while it certainly has more than its share of weighty moments, it's a spectacularly entertaining film. It's well-paced, well-acted, and keeps you engaged with the characters and the constant parade of historical events. I lost myself in this movie for a while before realizing some major flaws in the film.
The main problem with The Butler is that the main character is uninteresting. Cecil Gaines is essentially a less entertaining Forrest Gump as he sees all this stuff going on around him, but doesn't really impact it at all. Because of that, the film turns to Louis for its emotional center. And by doing that, the film becomes less about "The Butler" and becomes more and more about Louis. I can see that being a problem for some people. Cecil essentially doesn't care about the civil rights movement and wants to keep his job and serve. However, you have to look closer.
Eventually, The Butler becomes two parallel stories, as I said. By doing this, Daniels shows the civil rights movement from two African-American perspectives and they both are interesting to look at. Cecil wants to blend in with the white people by just being a good friendly guy, and a nice butler. Louis wants to take his rights by force. You see their parallel journeys. It's cool once you figure it out. But at first, I wasn't sure what to make of it, since Cecil isn't exactly your traditional civil rights hero. However, he still broke barriers in his own way.
The script by Danny Strong does struggle with a lack of focus, but is otherwise extremely sound. It doesn't shy away from racist language, which adds to the realism and never sugar-coats anything. The best part about this film is that Daniels and Strong realize that you don't need to soak your film in sentimentality to get peoples emotions going. My only problem is that I didn't care enough about Cecil. He doesn't operate as someone we need to root for. He's got a nice house, a nice life and he's a butler for the most powerful men on Earth. Cecil essentially operates as a guide for us as we see the movement. There are some nice bits where you see changes in his character, but I think that most of the emotion belongs to the side characters.
The Butler makes some questionable choices, but I think that they add to the story. Overall, this is a film that I think a lot of people will enjoy. It's a great drama and one that is infinitely watchable. It's got a great look to it and it has several Oscar worthy performances in it. Besides the problems I had with the main character, The Butler is an extremely well crafted film and one that we definitely be talking about come Oscar season. It's definitely a step up from 42, the other civil rights film. It's got a better and more interesting narrative than that one. The Butler is definitely more than a straight biopic. I think that it's a film worth examining for what it says about the civil rights movement and the different people that were a part of it.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (8/10)