Review – The Butler

Forrest Gump may have been referring to life and boxes of chocolates when he remarked that “you never know what you’re gonna get”, but he could just have easily been talking about the films of Lee Daniels.

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

In trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message

Following the little-seen crime thriller Shadowboxer (in which Helen Mirren stars as a contract killer – RED doesn’t seem so odd now), Daniels broke out with the rough and tough Precious before going completely off the reservation with 2012’s tawdry slice of American gothic The Paperboy.

The wild excesses and craziness of The Paperboy have been reigned in and sanitised with his latest offering, The Butler, loosely based on the true story of long-serving White House butler Eugene Allen.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home - the White House - in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) within his second home – the White House – in The Butler

The Forrest Gump analogy works on another level also, as The Butler is reminiscent of that film’s decade-spanning central character who finds himself brushing shoulders with America’s most powerful and influential figures. However, whilst Forrest’s encounters were largely down to fortuitous timing and dumb luck, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes part of the fabric of the White House over the course of seven presidencies.

The film charts Cecil’s life from a brutal upbringing on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, in which his father is murdered and his mother raped by the plantation’s sociopathic owner, through to his training as a servant which leads to him being employed as a butler at the White House in 1957 under Dwight D Eisenhower. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes a second home for Cecil, much to the chagrin of his devoted, but frustrated wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey). Meanwhile, Cecil’s eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a committed civil rights campaigner, while his other son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) chooses to fight in Vietnam.

Cecil's mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

Cecil’s mother Hattie (Mariah Carey) toils away in the cotton fields in The Butler

The Butler feels like a movie pulling in several different directions, with Daniels never quite sure which way to go. One minute it’s a sweeping historical epic, the next a hard-hitting depiction of the civil rights movement, while a minute later it’s a tear-jerking relationship drama between father and son.

Its opening scenes are a difficult watch and suggest a possible explanation as to why Cecil is so averse to speaking out or picking a fight as an adult. The film is at its strongest when dealing directly with the civil rights movement, which it does in an angry and harrowing way by portraying the shameful physical and verbal abuse meted out to those brave enough to smash through the petty racism that still existed in much of the South.

Cecil's volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Cecil’s volatile eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) in The Butler

Oyelowo does an excellent job as Louis, who risks his life and being ostracised from his father to fight for a more enlightened America, but only through peaceful means. His journey is arguably the most compelling in the film and it’s to Oyelowo’s credit that he doesn’t give in to Oscar-grabbing temptation.

Winfrey is also wonderful as Gloria, a complex character who dearly loves her husband but makes mistakes of judgement that etch themselves on her face. It’s performances like these that make you wish she’d spend less time interviewing people and more in front of the camera for different reasons.

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and fellow White House butlers James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr) in The Butler

As Gary Oldman so memorably proved in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the hardest performances to pull off are the ones that are dialled down almost to zero and Whitaker is similarly restrained as the ghost-like Cecil. Taught early on to silently blend into the background in order to become a successful butler, Cecil goes about his everyday business with the utmost professionalism while presidents come and go and the world moves on around him.

Despite being the headquarters of a world superpower, Daniels shows that very little actually changes within the White House, be it the Downton Abbey-esque stately formality or the attitudes among some senior White House staff towards the black servants.

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) in The Butler

A gamut of stars portray the various presidents, with the most notable being John Cusack’s clammy and paranoid turn as Nixon (including a slightly comical prosthetic nose) and Alan Rickman’s uncanny take on Ronald Regan.

Each president appears only briefly on camera, which lends weight to the argument that The Butler would probably have worked better as a mini-series. With so much to squeeze in, the film inevitably feels rushed and softens its impact as a result.

Daniels should be congratulated for bringing a serious film to the big screen  about the long and arduous journey African-Americans took before a black president finally occupied the White House, but in trying to tick too many boxes and pull in too may directions The Butler only serves to weaken its message.

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25 comments

  1. jjames36 · November 26, 2013

    We had a very similar experience. I too loved the performances and appreciated the subtlety. But I wasn’t moved either.

    Good review!

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Appreciate it mate. Daniels is a curious director; it’s hard to know what he’ll come up with next!

      • jjames36 · November 29, 2013

        True that.

        I still haven’t seen Precious, but The Paperboy was an … Interesting experience.

      • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

        That’s one way to describe it!

      • jjames36 · November 29, 2013

        😉

        I’m really not certain how else to describe. The performances are great and all, but beyond that … I don’t know.

  2. CMrok93 · November 26, 2013

    Good review. The familiar faces did become to get a bit too distracting at times, however, the fact that everybody involved was at least up to their parts, more than made up for it.

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Thanks Dan. It does turn into spot the famous face doesn’t it?

  3. cindybruchman · November 26, 2013

    Nice review. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. Chris · November 27, 2013

    Nice review, and I do agree that this movie did try to do too much. Had it been more focused, we coulda had the powerful film that this movie was so desperately trying to be, but what we got instead falls quite a bit flat instead.

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Appreciate that Chris. Quite agree; there’s a great film (or mini-series) to be made out of this, but this falls a bit flat by having one eye on awards season.

  5. Tom · November 27, 2013

    Solid review Mark, I enjoyed it quite a bit more than you but I certainly think your point about this movie benefitting from a made-for-TV miniseries treatment has validity. There are a lot of themes and periods to address here, as was the case in Forrest Gump, but I thought it was all handled pretty well. Probably could have been handled better, though. 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Hey Tom; thanks a lot my man. I think a mini-series covering each presidency would have worked quite nicely. It was handled well; I just felt it could have been handled better by having more balls.

  6. Zoë · November 27, 2013

    Great review! Hmmmm, I hear good things about it (even if everyone wasn’t necessarily blown away) and would like to check it out!

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Thank you Zoë! It’s worth your time, but if you have a few other films to watch first I’d suggest you do them first.

      • Zoë · November 29, 2013

        Then I shall add it to the “when I get there” list! Haha!

      • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

        🙂

  7. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · November 27, 2013

    Fine review Mark. Heard some very mixed reviews about this. I expect it to feature at least a couple of times come Oscar season though (just ’cause it seems like a film the Academy would lap up) so I wouldn’t mind checking it out.

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Thanks Chris. I’d heard mixed reports too but I was curious enough. I don’t regret seeing it, although it won’t make any end of year lists I feel.

  8. ckckred · November 27, 2013

    Nice review. I’ve been a bit unsure about seeing this. I’ve heard a couple of recommendations from some people, but it looks like awards-bait to me.

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Cheers man. It’s worth seeing for sure, but don’t expect anything particularly subversive. Daniels plays it safe for much of the film; only the civil rights stuff feels like it’s Daniels speaking with his true voice.

  9. chris2508 · November 28, 2013

    Great read. This film just screams oscar bait to me. However it does seem interesting enough for a watch.

    • Three Rows Back · November 29, 2013

      Thanks very much buddy. I think Daniels has toned himself down to get some Oscar recognition. I don’t think it’ll work to be honest, but you never know!

  10. danmart1n · November 30, 2013

    I did think the cast list was ambitiously long, but I’m still going to give this one a go if I can.

    • Three Rows Back · December 1, 2013

      It’s worth a pop no doubt. I hoped it would be better, but average is as good as it gets here.

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