Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
Lee Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director behind Precious and The Paperboy, tackles decidedly different territory with The Butler. Very loosely based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, there’s no denying the importance behind the film’s subject matter. Unfortunately, The Butler aims to move the audience with a lack of subtlety that ultimately detracts from the film’s more powerful moments.
Based on a 2008 Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong attempt to bring to the screen an epic tale that encompasses the social and political changes that took place in the U.S. while Eugene Allen was a butler in the White House. Allen’s life is loosely represented by the character of Cecil Gaines, an Africa-American man played in adult form by Forest Whitaker.
The film opens with Gaines in his old age, sitting in the White House. We then go back to his youth, as a child working with his parents on a cotton field under the brutal treatment of Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer). When his father is brutally murdered, Gaines is taken to work in the family home. It is here that he learns the art of indoor servitude, instilling the necessary knowledge that will serve his future profession as a butler.
The film then moves, in an episodic structure, towards his adult life. These snippets are nowhere near as important as they believe themselves to be, merely giving us some vague ideas as to how this man learned his craft and the era of racism that surrounded him. When Gaines is eventually hired as a butler at the White House, we are finally able to grasp some of the drama that the film wants to deliver.
Forest Whitaker doesn’t have an easy job with Cecil Gaines, a quiet man who doesn’t quite grab the audience as obviously at Lee’s direction tries to. Whitaker manages to bring a level of depth and realism to a simply written character. More of character a for us to witness history through, rather than with, Gaines is a likeable man who frustrates with his lack of outspokenness. The film wants to proclaim this character as a representation of the many African-American individuals that brought about change for equality, but he doesn’t ever seem to represent that persona. He is still inspiring, to be sure, but more of a quiet observer.
Gaines’ life in the White House serves to give us a large span of U.S. history. Eugene Allen worked for eight different administrations in his career, which gives The Butler an opportunity to discuss and depict many events that shaped the United States. When the film isn’t downright silly in its representations of some of these past presidents (John Cusack’s Nixon is painful, as is Alan Rickman’s Reagan), it manages to hit home with certain depictions of the social upheavals taking place in these times.
The film’s dramatic punchlines are ultimately provided by the supporting characters. David Oyelowo’s performance as Louis Gaines, Cecil’s eldest son, is brilliant. This young man’s transformation from quiet observer, to social and political activist, is nicely realized – as is his progressively strained relationship with his father’s opposing views.
A sequence in which Louis’ student protest-group decides to perform a sit-in, at the whites-only counter of a segregated diner, is downright brutal. They are spat on, physically and verbally assaulted, and all-out demeaned. This sequence is inter-cut with the group’s prior “training” for such an event, in which they all take turns at racially insulting each other to breaking point.
Also worthy of a mention is Oprah Winfrey, who plays Gloria Gaines. Winfrey does a nice job in her role, bringing a sense of pride and perseverance to Gaines’ frustrated wife.
The cast is impressively large, but that fact doesn’t really do the film any favors. Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, and Liev Schreiber are just some of the big names that appear. Yet, they’re more of a distraction than anything else. You’ll be looking for who is playing who, instead of simply accepting these characters. The bad make-up certainly doesn’t help.
The Butler is an epic film that fails to reach the heights it so strives for. Lee Daniels is so determined to get your emotions running that he delivers every heavy-handed technique in the book. Both obvious and stagey, the film still manages to tug at the heart-strings. This is mostly due to undeniable truths behind the film’s facade. Racism and injustice is thrust to the forefront, inevitably getting the blood-boiled. Kudos are in order for Daniels and his team’s attempt to bring us an epic with a budget of $20 million. Unfortunately, both the budget and Lee’s excessive theatricality push the film’s positive factors way back.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10