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Lee Daniels’ The Butler– Movie Review

Submitted by on August 17, 2013 – 4:04 pmNo Comment

Towards the end of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) takes his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) to the Georgia cotton farm where he endured a traumatic childhood in the 1920′s. Gaines’ voice over shows his shift from a docile and cautious man to one fed up with the status quo: he excoriates the US for always judging other nations, saying something to the effect of: “We hear about the concentration camps. But these camps [in the US] have been going on for 200 years.” When you think about it, this is a radical perspective for a presumably mainstream, family film. Daniels’ balance of schmaltz and harsh examination of the civil rights movement, presented with stellar acting, is what sets The Butler apart from so many recent historical films, especially those examining race in this country.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is based very loosely on the real life of Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House for 36 years, retiring as head butler. Basically, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong used this idea- a black servant in the background of so many momentous events- as a jumping off point, fictionalizing the rest. Much of the film’s drama comes from Gaines’ relationship with his eldest son, Louis. Scarred by life in the Jim Crow south, Cecil is grateful for the progress being made and for his unassuming success, while Louis (David Oyelowo) is discontent and dives head first into the civil rights movement.

The Butler‘s emphasis on black self-determination stands out even more starkly when compared to recent films like Lincoln and 42, which show white men handing down freedom, inspired by the suffering of black men. There’s some of that here, but the focus on presidential initiatives gives way to the grassroots civil rights movement as the film goes on.

And unlike 42, The Butler shows how “heroes” often have very messy personal lives, how their focus and struggle often tear at their loved ones. And even more, we see Cecil’s dignity, pride, and intelligence sometimes veer into self-righteousness, stubbornness, and denial. Again, this is a welcome change from some historically-based character studies.

There are certainly some downsides to The Butler, mainly, that it is long and bites off more than it can chew- and that’s even with the exclusion of the Ford and Carter administrations! The movie sacrifices deeper personal examinations for the sake of cramming in its historical hodgepodge. The coincidences are too coincidental, the characters’ evolutions too instantaneous sometimes. I kept thinking of the movie’s similarities to Forrest Gump, but The Butler really lacks that film’s human element (also, Gump only covers a manageable 25 years or so of the main character’s adult life). Making Whitaker and Winfrey portray their characters over a 60 year span stretches their considerable talents (Winfrey is stellar as the alcoholic, fresh-mouthed, but loving Gloria, shedding her squeaky clean image).

But these things are trade-offs, given up for a very ambitious movie.

Did you see The Butler? What did you think?

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