Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler: An Ambitious, Alternate View of 20th Century American History

Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Director: Lee Daniels

Reviewed: 10 March 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Although I admired much about Lee Daniels' The Butler, an expansive and ambitious film that spans an unseen U.S. History from the 1920's to the modern day, the film's scope undermines its dramatic power, resulting in an assemblage of four or five strands, all incomplete but any of which would be sufficient to build a film around. Daniels has united a terrific cast and an impressive array of make-up artists, clothing stylists, and production designers to capture the Eisenhower through Reagan eras in Washington D.C., yet his film struggled to maintain a consistent rhythm with scenes that are all to brief and too many ellipses among characters.

The story builds around a young Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker and several younger actors), a man from the South who witnesses the brutal murder of his father and becomes a domestic servant in that very household. Cecil takes to the role of serving, becoming the best of the best, always dedicated to a few core principles. Be invisible. Hear nothing. The room should be empty with you in it. Cecil's path leads him away from the South and to Washington D.C. in the 1950's, a marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) with two sons, and a butler position in the Eisenhower White House. The film then focuses on Cecil's service through 8 administrations and the Civil Rights Era, with his activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) often providing a counterpoint to his own more conservative positions. It is breathtaking to go from famous actors impersonating presidents to painful reenactments of Woolworth counter sit-ins, Freedom Rider bus attacks, and Black Panther Party meetings, and all of these pieces tantalize because nothing in the film is given enough room to breathe. A few sequences feature cross cutting between the world of the father (polishing silverware, preparing elegant state dinners) with the world of the son (enduring virulent abuse from racists, being thrown into jail).

Daniels has overreached in the film, but he has at least four or five potentially wonderful films inside of it. One: Cecil Gaines remains too much of a cipher because of all of the cutting away. Digging deeper into his psychology could have provided more understanding of his character. Instead, he seems symbolic more than real. Two: Cecil works with a staff at the White House of impressive actors (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz), and though the film hints at their camaraderie and outlines the necessity for wearing a facade to work in this world that gives them less pay than their white counterparts, Daniels simply glances at the friendships and the experience of working in the White House instead of digging deep.  Three: Cecil's relationship with his wife Gloria is given short shrift; their marital troubles stem somewhat from his long hours at work, but the film never gives them the scenes necessary to fully understand their relationship. Four: The world of the presidents and historical reenactments. In pursuit of realism and iconography, Daniels creates a sense of cursory history, with presidents and leaders changing on a whim, often with a television or Cecil providing the catalyst. When a president asks Cecil about his family, I'm most curious about what prompted that question. How much does the president know about his staff?  What was it about Cecil that encouraged those who wielded power to learn from him? There are too many unanswered questions like that. Five: The story of Cecil and his son (and seeing them through the prism of his lost relationship with his own murdered father) mirroring the different generations' approach to change undercuts the human element. Cecil and Louis needed more scenes together in their home and beyond. A powerful shift by a character at the end of the film would echo even more deeply with their relationship meaning more to the film.

Yet through it all, there is an undeniable power to seeing a filmmaker grasp with the Civil Rights Era through the lens of a father and son as well as take us up to the modern era with Nelson Mandela protests and the election of Barack Obama. Part of me really wanted to see the conversation that the framing device builds up the entire movie. What would Cecil tell the current president? Lee Daniels is an important voice working in film today, and although I found this film's faltering to outweigh its brilliance, that does not mean I'm not impressed with the attempt. I am excited to see what this visionary filmmaker dares to do next.

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