When I saw the trailer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler I was struck by its approach and ambition but baffled by its August release date, the month where most of the forgettable, post-summer schlock comes out. Shouldn’t a film like this be practically born in September or October, the month when films that are being considered for awards be released? Why release something like this at the tail-end of summer where its revenue will be meager compared to the fall?

Emerging from the theater, I can see why. The Butler is a disappointing film to say the least, heavy-handed, completely blunt in its emotional manipulation, formulaic all the more, but packing just enough sentimentality and messages/depictions of racism that we should know by now to warrant a round of applause at the end. I was stunned to hear audible gasps during depictions of sit-ins and the famous attack on Freedom Riders in Alabama. If any of this was a surprise to you, you must be completely ignorant of American history.

The film concerns Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who was raised on the cotton fields as a slave and the poor soul who witnessed his father being shot in front of his eyes. As he got older, however, he became a butler, who was taught to make his presence practically invisible and his interactions with the people he was serving almost nonexistent. One promotion lead him to be a butler at the White House for presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and more. He also had the gift of having a family, made up of his wife, the well-meaning but struggling alcoholic Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and their two children, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).

During Cecil’s time in the White House, strong racial tensions brewed in American as the Civil Rights Movement began to take effect. We see how every president had to address racial equality in some way, and the unbelievable roadblocks that stood in their way. His son Louis becomes increasingly interested in the movement after the death of Emmett Till made him realize that he was the same age and could’ve been victim as well. When he decides to participate in the movement, hoping to engage in sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, he is met with opposition from Cecil, who believes in silent, civil obedience even in the darkest times. Louis still sees himself as a highly ambition man and decides to take action himself.

The Butler
Lee Daniels
Forest Whitaker, David Banner, Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey
Release Date
August 16, 2013
Influx Grade: D+

With so much going on, and so much interest in character, it’s shocking to note just how boring Lee Daniels’ The Butler actually is. Forest Whitaker gives a memorable performance, always striking the right notes in terms of being a gifted screen presence, but Cecil is such a thin shell of a character that it’s nearly impossible to relate to him if you weren’t alive in the Civil Rights era. Cecil is a typical working black man of the era, staying quiet, relishing the thought he is employed, does great work, and is mostly appreciated for it. These common-man traits only make a movie when there is something else infused with the story – perhaps dialog showing his multi-layered personality or constant focus on the character. However, when The Butler keeps zigzagging around, from president-to-president, protest-to-protest, from news report to news report, the focus is shifted so much that close, human bonding with Cecil as a character is all lost.

Being that The Butler’s focus on character is a bit flimsy, one must look at its examination of the Civil Rights movement and the politics surrounding it. At best, this is a basic examination at one of America’s most brutal times, and writer Danny Strong (who wrote Game Change, a film I just watched and loved considerably) doesn’t do justice to the time or the presidents of the era, reducing each one to a simple caricature. Look at Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and regard how he looks more like Richard Nixon than Johnson. Then look at John Cusack as Richard Nixon, who might as well be John Cusack himself. Obama is mentioned but not shown or portrayed. The way the film cast presidents I was expecting Chris Rock to play him. The only real performance in the White House that stands out is Alan Rickman, who portrays Ronald Reagan to the point where is voice can be easily confused for Reagan’s actual speaking voice. There’s a biopic waiting to be made in this film — take the hint.

What’s left are the depictions of important events during this time, which are left mostly unexplored to the say the least. All I could admire was the competence of Oyelowo as Cecil’s conflicted son. With that being said, Oprah Winfrey surprising does great work here, but at no point does she sink into character long enough to where you forget she’s actually the woman who pretty much owns the Television world as we know it. Consider “Jobs,” the unfairly bashed Steve Jobs film that opens alongside The Butler this weekend. I lost myself in Ashton Kutcher’s performance and occasionally saw touches of Jobs in Kutcher’s dignified performance. I saw nothing but Oprah Winfrey playing dress-up in The Butler.

I’ll face facts and say The Butler is destined to be one of the most empowering films of the year for a lot of people. It clearly left a lot of people with hope and feelings of courage by the time the credits rolled. However, this is a film that clearly wants you to cry, reflect on race issues that have been brought up so much more competently in other films, and regard how common-men can have an impact. However, in doing so, the film winds up abandoning its common-man of a hero for oversimplified depictions of Civil Rights protests and ridiculous portrayals of significant leaders by men who, while talented, do not resemble the men in question. And when the film does, in fact, try to return to a character-oriented drama, it can’t help but show its title character with stunning indifference and ordinariness. There are interesting, revolutionary men still waiting for their biopic – Cecil Gaines wasn’t one of them.

Reviewed by Steve Pulaski

Read more of Steve’s Reviews at: http://stevethemovieman.proboards.com

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