The Butler, 2013.
Directed by Lee Daniels.
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Liev Schrieber, Minka Kelly, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Clarence Williams III and Isaac White.
As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.
As The Butler comes to a close, a dedication appears: “dedicated to all those who fought and died for black rights,” or along that line. It’s a shame that a brief moment, a split second at the end if the film carries more poignancy than the two hours before. Forest Whittaker – arguably at a career best – stars as Cecil Gaines, who works his way from witnessing his father murdered and mother raped as a young boy to the White House, working for five Presidents as the world changes around him.
It’s in Whitaker’s performance that the film truly succeeds. By no means an easy role, director Lee Daniels shows the life of Gaines from a young boy to an elderly man, with Whitaker playing a role than spans well over fifty years. As a young boy, Gaines is told to be invisible when in a room and Whitaker’s role reflects this. He strides through each presidency, almost in every scene, he commands the film, always there, invisible, but subtly changing history around him.
However impressive Whitaker’s performance is, it is his relationship with Oprah Winfrey that truly shines. Winfrey’s well published a story of oppression in her own personal life is used as a stepping stone for the film. In a similar manner to her on screen husband, she never shouts or overwhelms the frame, but she brings a sense of calmness to the chaos that surrounds her.
James Marsden, an actor terribly wasted throughout his career, impresses as JFK and at times outshines “the Butler,” and Liev Schrieber chews the scenery as Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s a shame that Alan Rickman and Robin Williams are miscast as Nixon and Eisenhower in roles that force the audience to question what exactly Daniels was thinking.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, two actors who have failed to impress in recent years, are larger than life, bringing the rare comic moment that lifts the film from being a monotonous drama. Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave have fleeting appearances, as does Alex Pettyfer, who shows why he hasn’t exactly broken Hollywood just yet.
The Butler owes most to Forrest Gump. Although the latter brimmed with a sense of laughable satire, the former puts in a stern face. As each president passes, Gaines grows older, the hardships worsen and his family slowly drifts apart. One could argue that Daniels chooses to study Winfrey’s Gloria more than Whitaker with her whiskey tainted breath hovering over each action Cecil makes.
Daniels has made a career out of deep fried, dirty and gritty Southern dramas but The Butler is a massive departure from this. Very few moments truly show the horror of the black oppression and those that do are fleeting, failing to leave any emotional resonance.
The Butler is terribly light hearted. A series of heartfelt but slightly hollow chapters that are lifted by a string of truly impressive performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★