For a movie whose tagline implies that it will be an inspiring and meaningful story, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is neither. Despite a couple impressive performances from its leads, the film, which is based on a true story, fails to bring a new perspective to the history of America during the Civil Rights movement; considering that its protagonist was in a unique position to do so, it is especially disappointing.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a black man who was raised on a cotton farm, where he watched his mother (Mariah Carey) be abused by one of the farmhands, and his father shot and killed. Out of pity for the boy the mistress of the house trained him to serve; working in a Washington, D.C. hotel as an adult, Cecil is noticed by a White House worker and offered a job as a butler serving the President. As a result, Cecil is able to provide for his family, but his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) grows increasingly frustrated by the fact that he is never home, while his son Louis (David Oyelowo) an avid supporter of the civil rights movement, views his father’s job with contempt.
Cecil begins his tenure at the White House under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and continues working there through the 1980s, witnessing firsthand the various leaders’ struggles with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War but choosing not to get involved. All the while this is contrasted with Louis’s goings-on in the South, working with the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr. to push for civil rights.
The problem with this movie is that it’s supposed to be about Cecil, but it doesn’t feel like it is. Actually, the movie seems to struggle figuring out what it wants to be. At times the film dwells more on Louis than Cecil, and so many events and presidencies are flashed through that nothing is given much thought. Rather than portraying these events through the eyes of Cecil, most of the time they are presented to us in a somewhat generic fashion; we’ve all seen those famous photos and videos from the height of the civil rights movements, so for goodness sake use the characters to get the point across.
Furthermore, the character development is poor. Whitaker and Winfrey both give spectacular performances, and the make-up department deserves a special shout-out for their fantastic job aging the characters. But Cecil and Gloria go from one extreme to the other without any catalyst for doing so. One second Cecil hates what Louis is doing, the next he calls him a hero. One second he and Gloria are fighting, the next they appear extremely in love. These changes feel out of place and not well explained, which really underwhelms what I’m sure was supposed to be an emotional climax. On top of all that, some of the actors picked to portray the Presidents and other famous persons were just downright distracting. Alan Rickman as Ronald Regan? Jane Fonda as Nancy Davis? John Cusack as Richard Nixon? They’re not bad actors by any means, but they aren’t the right fit for their roles, which makes them appear less like serious representations of real people and more like caricatures.
“The Butler” is not a bad movie by any means. But director Lee Daniels fails to do anything interesting or different with this story, and as a result it feels like a rehash of any other movie set during this time period. The true story of Cecil Gaines is likely very interesting, but by not making this movie entirely about him, Daniels fails at making that crucial connection with his audience.
Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:
- Wehrenberg Theatres
- AMC Theatres
- Regal Movie Theatres
- Galleria 6
- Chase Park Plaza
- Moolah Theatre
- Hi-Pointe Theatre
- St. Andrews Cinema
- Plaza Frontenac Cinema
- Tivoli Theatre
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