Director: Lee Daniels
Stars: Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrance Howard, Robin Williams, John Cusack
Release Company: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R
I really wanted to like The Butler. Although never directly involved with the iconic Civil Rights events of the 1960s, I've been connected with this issue for many years (personally and via family). The timing of the theatrical release was auspicious--nearly 50 years to the day Martin Luther King stood before the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed "I have a dream" and reminded many Americans of our nation's unfulfilled ideals.
With a cast of noteworthy actors and weighty subject matter, the movie naturally became a "must see" event. But it's more likely that Weinstein selected the date as a marketing tool. Lest we forget, the movie has been heavily promoted for many weeks on TV and through various online means. (I've received no less than a dozen emails from The Weinstein Company about The Butler the past 4 days) Unfortunately, the floundering film fails to deliver the dream. On the other hand, we can be thankful that the film is not being released during the traditional Oscar season, or we'd be subjected to an even longer run of Weinstein ads.
The primary reason Lee Daniels' film falls short revolves around its ambitious goal: to illustrate the entire Civil Rights struggle by portraying one family's 70 year journey. The real-life basis for the project is Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a butler for the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan (1952 - 1986). But to make the story more dramatic, the project creates a composite protagonist named Cecil Gaines, who is surrounded by a family of composite characters fashioned to feature major Civil Rights events.
Screenwriter Danny Strong was charged to complete an impossible task: to craft a Roots-like saga that includes every significant Civil Rights battle through Presidencies using the White House as a motif--an African American journey from servant to President. A far stronger screenplay would narrow the focus and develop it more fully. Such broad strokes sacrifice character development and force the plot into contrived and simplistic terrain, along the lines of Forrest Gump navigating a list of Civil Rights events. The film's heart is in the right place. It's certainly on the right side of history by strongly opposing prejudice and racism, but subtleties are routinely tossed aside. Instead, the screenplay bludgeons the viewer.
The worst example opens the movie. Protagonist Cecil (Forest Whittaker) flashes back to his 1926 sharecropping days in a Macon, Georgia cotton field. in Macon, Georgia where young Cecil sees his mother (Mariah Carey) taken to a shed to be raped and soon after witnesses his father get murdered. The signaled how the rest of the movie would evolve--over the top signature racism moments that come across awkwardly contrived.
Cecil grows up first as a "house nigger," moves on to the Baltimore-DC area as a bartender/server, and eventually lands in the White House because he has learned to serve white people without revealing feelings or politics. He has two sons (also composite characters) to symbolize divergent views in the African-American community. Younger adopts mainstream values and opts to serve in Vietnam while the elder son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a Civil Rights activist.
Louis' character destroys credibility by actively participating at nearly every significant Civil Rights event in the 1960s-- the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in, a freedom bus ride fire-bombing, Birmingham police dogs and fire hoses, and joining Dr. King's entourage in a hotel room before a non-violent demonstration. He then directly opposes his father's perceived "Uncle Tom" professional persona by joining the Black Panthers before moving on to participate directly in the established political system. While this nobly represents the gamut of politics in the African-American community, it fails to resonate simply because it comes across more like a shopping list than true inner conviction.
Whittaker does his best with the material, but the screenplay doesn't allow him that much to do. Not even with the big emotional turning point in his career when he no longer can be content. Instead of providing dramatic moments to demonstrate this, lazy writing only allows Whittaker to perform a voice-over to express his disillusionment.
It's not all bad. Some of the best moments involve the banter between the White House staff, humorous riffs during a family celebratory party, and a great exchange between Cecil and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) about their granddaughter. These all sound very natural and human ... and very real.
It's too bad that these small moments are overshadowed by the big picture. The film may have some value for younger viewers who know very little or next to nothing about the Civil Rights struggles, but there's very little actual content on any of the events here. For historical content, dig out a copy of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Or if you seek a more emotional and true human experience to illustrate the current state of Civil Rights and the nature of racism in the U.S., you would be far better off checking out Fruitvale Station.
Roger Ebert established the idea that a film can be worthwhile as long as it has entertainment, artistic, or educational value. Lee Daniels' The Butler fails miserably on entertainment and artistic merit. So that leaves educational merit, but also fails to satisfy there. Instead of rolling out historical content like a mighty stream, it only trickles weakly.