Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Movie Review No. 721
Directed by Lee Daniels. Written by Danny Strong. Article: “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood. Produced by Lee Daniels, Cassian Elwes, Buddy Patrick, Pamela Oas Williams, and Laura Ziskin for Follow Through Productions, Salamander Pictures, Laura Ziskin Productions, Lee Daniels Entertainment, Pam Williams Productions, and Windy Hill Pictures. Starring Forest Whitaker, Michael Rainey Jr., Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Aml Ameen, Clarence Williams III, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo. Premiered in New York City, New York on August 5, 2013. Distributed by The Weinstein Company in wide release on August 16, 2013. Rated PG-13: some violence, disturbing images, sexual content, thematic material and smoking. Runs 132 minutes.
In the opening scenes, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” wreaks of a movie that we’d much rather call “12 Years a Slave”-lite. Then we realize, this sort of cruelty isn’t in a movie set in the 1800’s. It’s 1926! Now let’s fast-forward to 1957, when Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was no longer a man growing up under an avalanche of powerful racists in the Jazz Age. He was now a butler for the President of the United States.
In getting to this, the movie sets up too quickly, almost unconvincingly, but even so, “The Butler” makes itself clear in delivering its message about racism. Which does seem obvious at first, but an elaboration on the subject matter doesn’t hurt, especially when the message is delivered through the right individual. At the beginning of Gaines’s career, he served the Eisenhower Administration. He retired under the Reagan Administration. That’s seven Presidents this butler worked for. He learned something valuable from each one of them, or maybe that’s just my catching eye of movie formula.
“The Butler” is a very superficial movie, but it does get to a certain spot in our hearts that finds compassion and familiarity to the issues dealt with. Certain protest scenes and a particularly disturbing KKK scene had me surprised that what I was watching was PG-13. Maybe we have faith in a small part of it, because it so reverently and honestly tells of a cultural issue we’re all aware of.
There’s no telling why none (I repeat: none) of these performers look like the figures they’re portraying, but they do so well at it. James Marsden may not look a thing at all like Kennedy, and Alan Rickman may have required a lot of makeup to appear as Reagan, but their personas fit. What I feared of “The Butler” was that it would be cheesy. As I’ve said, it’s superficial. But not cheesy. Superficial, and I’m not really sure whether I can say I’m disappointed or pleased with its outcome. As is the definition of an acceptable movie, “The Butler” met every last one of my expectations. But with a fair bit of woodshed on the project, all my expectations could have been well exceeded.
Son of God
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD.