Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland
Markus Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Now playing at Century 20 Oakridge Mall in San Jose, California:
Now, I’m going to say two things that many critics may be afraid to say, for whatever reason:
1. “Precious” was wildly overrated.
2. With “The Butler”, Lee Daniels has officially become a worse director than Tyler Perry.
How is it possible to ruin a movie with an Oscar bait subject matter that should be considered the film equivalent of a layup? Ask director Lee Daniels. Originally slated to be directed by Spike Lee (or course) “The Butler” (now “Lee Daniels’ The Butler") chronicles the story of Cecil Gaines (an African American) from his humble beginnings working on a plantation in the South, to his longstanding career as a butler in the White House, where he served under eight different presidents. Based on Wil Haygood’s article “A Butler Well Served by This Election”, Daniels has already stated that while the movie itself is set against historical events, it is a work of fiction. And though that fact doesn’t have any correlation as to whether or not this is a good film, if you come out of this having a deep admiration for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” solely on the basis that you believe it to be based on a true story, then this news may allow you to see how mediocre of a film it really is.
During the few times Daniels does not relegate this movie to an inappropriately campy tale of American civil rights, Forest Whitaker’s performance shines through (especially nearing the third act). And the star studded cast who plays the string of presidents, such as Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (each on screen anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes throughout) are all well and good here. And though Oprah Winfrey (who plays Cecil Gaines’ wife) awkwardly never seems to physically age throughout a majority of this film and for a time David Oyelowo (who plays Cecil’s son) plays a teenager who looks all of 40 years old, much of that will be overlooked because of the material. I will also make mention that the aspects which worked well for me all stemmed from the script and its focus, not so much on Cecil’s work at the White House, but on the conflicts he has with his son; or more so the thematic conflicts between the Black militant vs. the Black domestic, which is an extremely interesting historical battle to watch play out. In fact, that kind of African American social struggles plotline is right up my alley. So, why was I so disinterested for much of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”?
For one, many of the more touching moments between father and son come off as goofy, since every time Oyelowo has a confrontation with Whitaker he is in a new costume (making more wardrobe changes than Celine Dion in concert). For example: in the 60’s he is dressed as a college freedom rider (suit and tie) in the 70’s he is dressed in all black, accented with a black beret, as he is now a Black Panther and in the 80’s he is dressed in a Dashiki and has grown a ridiculous looking mustache, as he speaks out against apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. And since these moments are essentially the strongest written chunks of the film, the wardrobe distraction may cause audiences to shrug off said moments as being emotionally stunted.
In saying that, the overall problem with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” comes down to the fact that I didn’t have any emotional connections with any of the storylines or characters and thus when countless contrivances would arise, they had me rolling my eyes profusely, when I should have been touched, or angry or moved in some fashion. And the blame for this disconnect has to fall squarely on the shoulders of the visionary Lee Daniels. The script has its flaws, but it also has some quite interesting lines of dialogue and many interesting conflicts. But Daniels has transformed the material into something that was liken to a trashy, sweaty, soap opera (a la “The Paperboy”) not having nearly the respect for the content as he should have.
Final Thought: Yes, the archival footage (most of which concerns some of the more violent brutalities of the civil rights movement) is powerful, and Daniels’ does construct one 5 minute sequence which depicts a civil rights sit-in juxtaposed with a White House dinner party, that is honestly quite well done. But for the rest of the 2 hours plus, Daniels visually suffocates this story so severely, that it becomes quite impossible to enjoy this rather intriguing and quite layered Jane Pittman-esque character.
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