- Movie Rating -

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

| August 21, 2013 | 0 Comments

There are few things more boring than sitting through a historical biopic written by a screenwriter who can’t find a narrative stream of history other than to turn it into a choppy highlight reel; second only to that is history that treads safe, uncomplicated, unchallenging waters. Lee Daniels’ The Butler suffers under the weight of both of these miscalculations. It’s a polished vanilla syntax of history that deals with the most turbulent chapters of the mid-20th century American history but is only satisfied in telling you what you want to see and hear. This is the most unchallenging portrait of the Civil Rights Movement since The Help.

The movie is apparently based on true events and takes place over a span of about 80 years, seen through the eyes of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whittaker), a black sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who witnessed his father’s murder at the hands of a white man and grew up seemingly with a determination to remain in the place designated for him by the social norms of the time. As an adult he found a job working as a butler in the White House where he would remain in service for 40 years, from Eisenhower all the way through the Reagan years. Meanwhile (apparently in scenes we never get to see) he meets and marries his lifelong partner Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and has two boys.

Much of Cecil’s life is seen in two spaces: First is his job, which encourages him to keep his head down and his mouth shut despite the fact that over the years eight different United States Presidents constantly ask his opinion on equal rights. Second his is relationship with his eldest son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) who refuses a subservient role and takes an active stance in Civil Rights despite the old man’s objections.

The narrative of this film is frustrating. It deals with Cecil’s view of history that is only seen in bits and pieces that take place in jump cuts so sudden that we lose our place in the story. We see the Little Rock lunch counter protests. We see the forced school integration. We see the Freedom Riders. We see Vietnam. We see The Kennedy Assassination. We see the march to Selma. We see the assassination of Martin Luther King. We see The Black Panthers. These events are brought up but never really dealt with in a fluid way. The movie jumps quickly from one major event in history to the next without ever giving us the feeling of the passage of time. There’s no sense here of a life being lived. When the movie was over I had no idea who Cecil Gaines was other than the broad overview of his life as a tiny pebble in a history lesson that wouldn’t slow down long enough for me to learn anything I didn’t already know.

Plus, the major historical events are spliced in (very oddly, I might add) with his conflicts with Cecil’s son, and with a bizarre and clumsily written role for Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife who spends a lot of screen time dealing with alcoholism and infidelity (one strange encounter suggests she’s screwing the guy next door but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie). Her character is so off balance from the rest of the story that it feels like it’s in a different movie.

The goings on at the White House are brief and pointless. Cecil is in service to every U.S. President from Eisenhower to Reagan and almost every Chief Executive is played by an actor who looks like someone else: Robin Williams play Eisenhower, but looks like Truman. James Marsden plays Jack Kennedy, but looks like Bobby. Liev Schrieber plays LBJ, but looks like Joe McCarthy. John Cusack plays Nixon, but looks like Kevin Spacey. Then there’s Alan Rickman whose strange performance as Ronald Reagan is mercifully brief. These actors walk into the picture for a minute or two, spout some identifier as to the current crises they’re facing and then disappear from the movie.

This is a very frustrating movie. It doesn’t delve into history, so much as gloss over it and clunk it up with a lot of side plots that aren’t necessary. I think the screenwriter, Danny Strong, needed a better idea of what kind of story he wanted to write. This could have been a nice portrait of a butler who worked in the White House for much of the century, like an American retelling of The Remains of the Day. Or it could simply have dealt with the father/son conflict. Instead, it tries to be all things to all people. It deals safely with a chapter of American history that few disagree on, and filters it in a very unchallenging way. It pays lip service to history without dealing with the events in question. If you want to see these events, you’re better off looking at a documentary like Eyes on the Prize or 4 Little Girls. As it stands Lee Daniels’ The Butler plays like a history textbook with pages torn out.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama