Monday, August 26, 2013


In a year rich in films about civil rights, one of them ("Fruitvale Station") has already released to critical approval and now we have another in the form of "Lee Daniels' The Butler". It's based on the true story of the White House butler Eugene Allen (renamed Cecil Gaines for the film) and his experiences serving various presidents. Focusing primarily on the years surrounding the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the black struggle for equality is high on the film's agenda.
Cecil's epic journey (he lived a long life!) begins on the final bastion of white supremacy - the cotton farm. We quickly get a sense of his childhood in the South (mixed race mother, evil white master), with tragedy soon causing him to leave his home and eventually venture up to the more pleasant North. This opening is inelegant in the way it's presented (a very generic portrayal of a Southern plantation), but it's the section of the film that seems most attuned to his sensibilities as a director. It's actually ironic that this is the film that required his name in the title, because it's the least Lee Daniels-esque movie in his filmography. The audacity and raw "ugliness" of his previous work are replaced by a more dignified affair. As a Lee Daniels fan, it feels almost like an auteur selling out, but the tone is appropriate to the story. His ability to divert attention away from his own directorial manipulations is quite impressive and unexpected. He gets the tone right, from the score to the visual aesthetic.
As the story plays out, Forest Whitaker gives the title role a nice evolving physicality. Despite playing a buttoned-up "goody two-shoes", he manages to give it the required emotional weight. Playing his wife, Oprah Winfrey also has a nice little role that functions primarily to entertain the audience. She's an alcoholic, sensual woman and it's the source of much amusement. It doesn't hold a candle to the skill and depth needed for her Sophia (in "The Color Purple"), but she acts it well. There's no denying she brings a strong presence to the screen. The film deals with some disturbing racial issues, so the dashes of humour that she brings (along with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Elijah Kelley) are welcome comic relief. As their eldest son, David Oyelowo is commendable too, although he didn't feel as natural as Oprah and Forrest. With his pitiful sad face and his fairly one-note aggression, the performance doesn't land as smoothly as his co-stars.
These characters lay the framework for an interesting narrative. Unfortunately, the nature of the narrative doesn't allow enough room for depth in the sideline characters, namely the presidents. It comes across as blatant stunt casting when such superstar actors are cast without being given fully developed characters. Hence, it's hardly worth evaluating any performance outside of the main trio. It's particularly telling when Gloria asks her husband (to no avail) for inside secrets about what happens in the White House. Even through the audience gets to follow Cecil through his daily work routine, we are also left wondering about the unique experiences of his interactions under each president. There are hints to the subtle differences between each president's policies, but it's the screenplay's weakest aspect.
What the screenplay does do well though, is the juxtaposition of Cecil's work life and his family life. It brought up a very interesting theme of the intricacies of black ambition that isn't often explored in like-minded films. While Cecil sees his butler job as the pinnacle of accomplishment, his son is much more ambitious. It's a fascinating generational issue, as well as an individual issue. Even today, the drive of black youth is still a significant issue that is clearly rooted in the oppression of people like Cecil Gaines and his forefathers. It's the reason why characters like Oscar Grant in the aforementioned "Fruitvale Station" are so compelling, showing the clash between underprivileged communities and those therein who desire more. This theme is the film's strength and is what makes it relevant to our contemporary world. The conflict between the reserved Cecil and his passionate son is deftly handled by Lee Daniels, combining their two worthy perspectives without overtly indicating a preference for either. It sets up an affecting finale that is well-earned by the story's long haul establishment of their tumultuous relationship. Likewise, the trajectory of Gloria and Cecil's relationship is well played. The emotional payoff moves us not because of a perfectly timed piano chord or dramatic emotional breakdown, but because we understand the family's struggles and complicated love for each other.
To cap it all off, the film's final note further invokes the theme of black ambition. What a beautiful sight to behold Cecil living to witness the inauguration of a black president. For a biopic about civil rights, you couldn't ask for a more fitting and resonant conclusion.

Of course, you must expect me to bring up some Oscar talk, so let's dig in. First off, I need to talk about the acting. What's most surprising is that even with such a large cast, this hardly seems like a true ensemble piece. There are really only 3 performances worth considering for Oscar contention - Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. Oyelow isn't memorable enough to break through, so you can forget about that nomination, but Winfrey and Whitaker definitely have a shot. Whitaker isn't quite showy enough for what is likely to a uber-competitive Best Actor lineup but he could certainly threaten for a spot, especially if the voters go for the film as a whole. In Winfrey's case, I agree that she's probably a lock for a nod, but I'm surprised that so many have touted her as the frontrunner to win Best Supporting Actress. Her role isn't nearly as meaty as the powerhouse roles that usually characterize this category, especially in recent years.
In terms of writing, it's definitely an appealing story, even if the finer details of the screenplay lack that extra literary flair. Despite its flaws, I still think Danny Strong's script is a possibility for Best Original Screenplay. On the more "technical" side, the makeup and costume design seem like the best bets but it's probably not striking enough to make the cut.
Finally, I think the film could definitely be a strong contender in the major categories of Best Picture and Best Director. It's a well-made film and I think the academy would agree.

As a fan of Lee Daniel's work, I came in expecting a lurid interpretation of history, but I got something more akin to a Richard Attenborough biopic. So even while I did miss the usual "go for broke" performances from his ensemble, it was nice to see that he could make such a classy production. It's great that he has already established a unique auteur style, but showing range is always an asset. Particularly as a black director, it's a strong statement to show that you can do safe "Oscar-bait" just as well as your white counterparts. In an industry that seems to appreciate only gritty urban dramas from black directors, I think Lee Daniels is setting a fine example with his work here.


  1. While I enjoyed this film, I didn't love it. Your review makes a lot of good points, especially the generation divide. I just feel like with this film, Lee Daniel's bit off more than he could chew. The presidents seemed quickly thrown together in the plot, and I would have preferred something more in-depth out of that. On the Oscar frontier, I'm surprised to say that I wasn't as impressed with Oprah's performance as I had anticipated; in fact, I was more impressed with Whitaker's! Tremendous acting, undoubtedly, but not in comparison to years past. I wouldn't hold this in the best picture category, but the academy probably will.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I actually just re-watched this with my parents yesterday and it didn't hold up as well. I still like it, but it certainly felt very calculated and didn't give enough depth to the presidents' side of the plot as you pointed out.