Director Lee Daniels bombarded his way onto the Hollywood scene with Best Picture and Best Directing Nominations for his eye-opening drama, Precious. While a racial tone is clearly prevalent in Daniels' work thus far, it's impossible to ignore the filmmaker's uncanny ability to craft an emotionally charged motion picture. Needless to say, I was quite anxious to screen the director's most recent offering, Lee Daniels' The Butler.
Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) grew up on a cotton plantation in Georgia during the 1920s. More than half a century had passed since Lincoln freed the slaves, yet very little changed down south. After witnessing his father's murder at the hands of a hate-filled white man, Cecil is brought to work inside of the plantation owner's home. The young boy learns the ins and outs of proper etiquette but longs for a better life. A young Cecil flees from his plantation job and migrates to North Carolina where he meets an elderly server who takes him under his wing and teaches him even more about the craft. All of which lead to Cecil getting a job as a butler in the White House all throughout our nation's Civil Rights Movement.
If there's ever been a case of artistic license, The Butler has to be the poster child. About as loosely based on a true story as you can get (which means yeah, there was a butler), the film becomes a mockery of itself and detracts from its initial focus of opening eyes to the civil rights movement. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of civil rights centered films. Let's take The Help, for example. What makes movies of this genre so appealing are the genuine moments of acceptance and compassion. Seeing the Civil Rights Movement in a positive light where African Americans are welcomed-in by their Caucasian counterparts, that's what makes these style of films transcending. It's meant to be sincere, emotional and all-loving. However, in The Butler it's difficult to find any cross-racial compassion or other positively framed examples as to why the Civil Rights Movement worked. All in all The Butler is an overextended feature packed with too many insignificant characters and far too much fluff to give it any real credibility.
Although I felt very indifferent towards the feature, I will gladly praise the filmmaker and his cast for those rare but spectacular onscreen moments. The Butler delivers a handful of Oscar-bait scenes that ultimately make the film feel like a letdown. Because outside of those glowing moments, there isn't much soul to the film. Furthermore, there is a very talented ensemble in the picture. Whitaker is wonderful, Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr are stellar, and even Oprah offers a fine performance. Moreover, Liev Schreiber may steal the show in his small but crowd-pleasing role as President Lyndon Johnson. But despite a fine cast and a few brilliant scenes, The Butler is an off-the-mark and unbalanced film.
After all of the hoopla financier Harvey Weinstein went through to keep its name, many prognosticators had Oscar-level expectations for the film. Instead we're left with a run of the mill Civil Rights piece that solely focuses on the hatred and bigotry that plagued this great nation for far too long. There aren't many redeeming qualities here, so I suggest passing on The Butler.