Lee Daniels’ The Butler – 3/5 – Movie Reviews by Ry!

The ButlerLee Daniels’ The Butler – 3/5 – Biographical films; the feeling that these films can drum up can spread to various ranges.  With films dealing with a lot of historical facts (with a Hollywood touch) you will get anything from the heartfelt to the most poignant.  Even with a lot of emotional driven by the context of history, one thing is always at the root of these films.  They have to still portray some strong presence of story, character, and most importantly, entertainment.  The Butler is a film that has fragments of story, but most of the film is a journey in the life of one’s man’s life as The Butler for the White House.  Through some hurdles, cliché portrayals and some unmoving moments, The Butler succeeds in being a good layered character film.

Premise: Cecil Gaines is a Butler.  He isn’t any Butler, but one that has served eight presidents at the White House.  During his tenure, he witnesses key moments in our history; the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events.  Through it all, the struggles of work and home hit hard, as you watch as it affect his life, family, and American society.

At the heart of this film is Cecil Gaines, the man who served eight Presidents.  The man who portrays this character on screen is Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker.  In this role, he gives a very subdue but stern man, who has wits to be the best at his job, but also provided elements of emotion in his personal life.  He helps us get a glimpse at what it is like to work ‘behind the scenes’ at the White House, while also showing how that dedication causes conflict at home.  Here, we watch as he struggles of being a man of honor, but also having a conscious vision with dealing with issues within America at this time.  With civil rights, Vietnam and all other social issues becoming a forefront at the White House, the complexion hits at that heart for Cecil.  This struggle of morality creates a man of flawed ambition, but also a strength in that flaw, with his dedication, respect and work ethic.  All of these things exudes through the raw talent in Whitaker’s acting, and also gives the audience a point of engagement with his character.  Complimenting Whitaker’s Cecil at home is his wife Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), and his sons Charlie Gains (Issac White & Elijah Kelly) and Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo).  As great as Whitaker is in his role, his family helps provided depth, value, and purpose for his life and solitude.  Winfrey does a great job in providing the staple in the household, but also giving us a flawed individual when dealing with her husband and sons.  Her strength is in her graceful interaction with others on screen, and commanding facade of her line delivery.  The sons do a great job in giving reflection of this entire struggle, especially Oyelowo as Louis Gaines.  He is a boy who grows up watching the activist movement, and becomes an integral part of it.  This causes the traditional ‘father vs. son’ rift, but does it in a way that portrays both the struggle of family, and of a nation.  In this film, we have a lot of well known actors/actress that show up in supporting roles as fellow butler/maids, friends and president’s. I will talk about the presidents in order:

Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower

James Marsden as John F Kennedy

Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B Johnson

John Cusack as Richard Nixon

Alan Rickman as Ronald Regan

These actors do a fantastic job in portraying each president, while adding their own kind of flavor to make them distinct.  When on screen, they provide a show of humility in being president, as well as give insight on how they interact outside of the public eye.  For some of the actors, they give a somewhat cliché aspect of what the previous presidents were like through mannerisms, but it doesn’t deter from the efforts giving in the quality.  For the rest, we have fellow butlers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), as well as friends Howard (Terrence Howard) and Lorraine (Pernell Walker).  These actors/actress help add flavor to the film, as well comic relief.  Even for this added addition, they don’t do much outside of these traditional film elements.  The rest of the cast is littered with common archetypes for a biographical film, as well as add to the common ‘historical’ tone of the film.

The direction of the film is a linear, straight forward path; littered with moments that are intriguing and underwhelming.  Throughout this simple direction, you have a series of ‘checkpoints’ that move the film along.  Through some narration by Forest Whitaker, you get the feeling that this film is going to have a feeling of a ‘bullet point’ presentation that highlights aspects of Cecil’s life.  In the beginning, we get the basic setup of Cecil Gaines, as you see two things in his development: Back-story and motivation.   Within the back-story, you watch as he grows up on a cotton farm, where he learns his ‘servant’ skills, and how he took those skills and moved along ‘key points’ in his life to become part of the White House staff.  Through this common build up, we get introduced to a paralleling story that revolves around the issues of race, civil rights, and family values.  Through this, we get a dynamic that helps define who Cecil Gaines is, and what drives his idealistic views, and how that causes conflict at work and his home life.   As the film leaves this ‘prologue’, we began to hit ‘checkpoints’ that have an effect on both Cecil’s life and the history of the United States.  We see as the film does a decent job in paralleling both the ‘civil rights’ movement (through his son’s series of actions in the south) and the struggles of the butler’s job vs. home life (Cecil’s interaction with his son, wife and fellow presidents).   As you watch this develop, it turns more ‘informative’ than ’emotional’, which cause dry elements in the direction, forcing a formulaic progression.  What this also does is show a reflective surface that you notice is important, but there isn’t any engagement that could provide elements of either emotional of dramatic tones towards the characters or ‘poignant’ moments.  What you realize is the film boils down to a series of repetition that goes as follows:

President Key moments; witness by Butler

Butler struggles with separating this from family

Butler/son conflict

Emotional impact, Exposition

Move forward to key moment

With this becoming the obvious, you never really get encapsulated in the overall arching ‘historical’ elements, causing it to stay on its ‘informative’ linear path.  Even with this revolving door, the ‘behind the scenes’ aspect of the White House is a strong point in the film.  This is a strength because you are witness to truths not known to most, but also see how it compliments Cecil’s growth as a man, a husband and a father.  Eventually, the film hits a few startling moments, which will either hit hard or just become another ‘checkpoint’ to the audience.  Once you get to the end, you realize that there’s a deeper complexion to its historical aspects, but it never comes across steadily, and the human struggles just never become a real driving force for the film.  Once the film closes, you enjoy what you watch, but feel like there could have been more.

The visuals of the film are on par for a biographical picture, but don’t really provide elements we haven’t seen before.  The score is welcoming, but doesn’t do much else (like the visuals).

Overall, The Butler is a great showcase for acting and meaning, but never really comes across as a great film as a whole.  For the great acting, the direction is what drowns out the moments that should have been moving.  If you’re a fan of the actors involved, or like biographical films, this is one for you.

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