A Review of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

September 6, 2013

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is saved from categorization as an underdeveloped flashcard history lesson by its powerfully posed cultural juxtaposition and the strength of lead actors including Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

“The Butler” provides a view of American history through the eyes of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who, from humble and violent beginnings on a cotton plantation, becomes the favored White House butler of eight presidents.

Whitaker’s performance serves as an astounding means of conveying the ideological tension within and beyond the African-American community. Whitaker displays a beautiful balance of strength and vulnerability. As Cecil undergoes spiritual transformation, and begins to feel the urge to join his son, pacifist freedom fighter Louis (David Oyelowo). Whitaker conveys the change in his body, his face and minimal changes in mannerism and movement. This movie would be nothing without his brilliance.

The immeasurable Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria. Despite limited screen time, Winfrey is mesmerizing. She does not succumb to dramatics, instead providing a level and gut-wrenching performance that conveys years of pain, love and wisdom.

An interesting cast comprises the eight presidents and first ladies served by Gaines. Noteworthy are Alan Rickman as an unsettling Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as an equally unsettling—though mostly due to her real-life left-wing political persona—Nancy Reagan, and James Marsden and Minka Kelly as the President and Mrs. Kennedy, respectively. Following Kennedy’s assassination, Kelly provides a shockingly unexpected and beautiful breakdown, while covered in her dead husband’s blood.

Although “The Butler” provides a fascinating view of the world from a stunning new viewpoint, the film is not as powerful as its potential. Director Lee Daniels’ largest mistake is in the pace of the film. He chooses to do too much within a limited time frame, and as a result, areas of importance are glossed over and dismissed. The events that should be momentous—take Martin Luther King Jr.’s shooting, for example—become snapshots and headlines as opposed to living, breathing moments.

The Vietnam War also ought to have been given more screen time, and the subsequent questions that arise from the decision Charlie (Elijah Kelley), Cecil’s younger son, makes to enlist. Vietnam becomes an area of interest due to the juxtaposition of a black man fighting for a country that for decades has fought the black man. Although the movie calls into question the moral implication of African-American patriotism during war in Vietnam, the film does not introduce, let alone explore, worldwide moral implications of war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes a vehicle for political conversation instead of the topic of political conversation.

Due to these pacing issues, some characterization is lacking. This is evident in characters such as Charlie Gaines, Louis’ pacifist-turned Black Panther girlfriend, Carol Hammie (Yaya DaCosta) and above all, Gloria Gaines.

Gloria is a complex character. She is a strong African-American woman, a protective mother and an unsatisfied wife. So much of the beauty in this film is profoundly influenced by her point of view and her struggle. Gloria’s role, however, particularly as an unsatisfied wife, is tragically underdeveloped onscreen. She succumbs to alcohol and has an affair, but her fall and subsequent recovery are undocumented. This is deeply disconcerting in so character-driven a film.

Given the rushed plot and gaps in the story, the immense acting talent in “The Butler” alone affords Daniels the opportunity to explore the civil rights movement. This exploration is most effective when Cecil and Louis’ worlds collide. The audience watches Cecil serve white men in tuxedos; meanwhile, white men refuse to serve his son at the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins. The audience listens to Carol discredit Cecil through the teachings of Malcolm X, and later is taught the value of a butler through the absolution of Martin Luther King Jr. These social and cultural juxtapositions are what make this film shine.

“The Butler” is not perfect, but it is definitely a movie worth seeing due to incredible performances by lead actors and beautifully compiled social commentary by way of juxtaposition.

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