While not as bad as I feared, “The Butler” is not as good as I hoped. The movie attempts to mix its personal drama the modern American history for presenting an interesting perspective to us, but it feels too blatant and artificial at times, and there several glaring points where its good actors cannot cover its weaknesses despite their nice efforts. We are surely served with those important historical moments throughout the movie, and we are naturally reminded of how much change was brought to the American society during the 20th century, but we do not get much from the story itself, which frequently feels like a standard product rather than a real human drama.
Its humble hero is Cecil Gaines(Forest Whitaker), an African-American who worked as a servant at the White House for more than 30 years. In the prologue scene where he is waiting to meet someone at his old workplace, Gaines looks back on how his life has been, and the movie accordingly goes back to his painful childhood memory during the 1920s. His parents worked in a cotton plantation in Georgia at that time, and young Gaines(Michael Rainey Jr.) directly witnessed a cruel moment of racism; Gaines’ mother was raped by the vicious owner of the plantation, and Gaines’ father was killed by the owner when he tried to protest about it.
After suddenly becoming an orphan because of this horrible tragedy, Gaines was fortunately taken cared of by Annabeth Westfall(Vanessa Redgrave), the old lady of the house. She taught him the skills for being a good servant, and her teaching later becomes very useful to him when adolescent Gaines, now played by Aml Ameen, luckily gets the job at some hotel after a chance encounter with Maynard(Clarence Williams III), the master servant of the hotel who becomes the second mentor in Gaine’s life. While he does not allow Gaines to use that negative word “house nigger”, Maynard’s teaching is same as Annabeth’s; always do the job silently as demanded while never drawing attention to yourself.
Gaines, now played by Whitaker at this point, sticks to that principle while working at a luxurious hotel in Washington D.C – and then starting to work at the White House in 1957. He also becomes a family man with a loving wife and two good sons, but he dedicates to his profession so much that his wife Gloria(Ophra Winfrey) becomes lonely and morose in spite of her lively spirit, and, as gradually becoming an alcoholic, she finds herself having an affair with one of their neighbors while her husband is busy with his work at the White House, the place to which he has not taken her yet.
While Gaines keep working with two co-workers who become his closest friends, the series of US presidents glides by them as giving the moments to be witnessed by Gaines. The Civil Rights movement against racism is being initiated around the country, and President Eisenhower(Robin Williams – no kidding) and President Kennedy(James Marsden) are horrified by the ugly side of America, and they do what they have to do as the leaders of the country respecting individual rights and freedom. While having some bathroom problem, President Johnson solidifies the position of the US government on the race problem through the Civil Rights Act, and Gaines and others see the progress in their world.
But, as many of you know, this progress was not easy at all, and the movie shows the dark, turbulent side of that time through one of Gaines’ sons. Unlike his father, Louis(David Oyelowo) is far more direct and active about the social problems of their world, and he keeps getting himself into trouble while participating in the Civil Rights Movements. That naturally causes the conflict between father and son due to their different views, and the gap between them becomes more widened when Louis joins in the Black Panthers.
The movie has several effective moments as Gaines and his son walk in parallel along the years of the Civil Rights Movement. During one sequence, the movie goes back and forth between Louis and Gaines respectively devoting themselves to each own assignment, and the message is blatant but clear; they are reaching for the same thing while viewing things differently. Later in that movie, Louis is reminded that how his father and other exemplary African-American servants have been eroding the racial barrier with their silent but steady diligence, and that is how he starts to respect his father more in spite of growing mutual estrangement between them.
The screenplay by Danny Strong is based on 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well served by This Election”, and Gaines is a fictional character loosely inspired by a real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, who died in 2010 but lived long enough to see that rapturous moment in 2008 along with other African-Americans. I was well aware of that the movie is mostly fictional, and I was merely amused by that familiar phrase “Inspired by a true story” at the beginning of the film, but the story did not feel particularly real to me because of its clumsy juxtaposition of personal drama and history events. The movie becomes less compelling as it leaves behind the turbulent era of the 1960-70s, and the 2008 scenes feel like a long epilogue which could have been shortened.
The actors do their best with their thinly characterized roles, and some of them are good while others are pretty awkward or wasted. Forrest Whitaker brings quiet dignity to his role while admirably carrying the movie, and Ophra Winfrey ably grabs her every Oscar moment, but I must say this movie is not their best moment. In case of other good actors like Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lenny Kravitz, they just come in and then go out, and the movie assembles quite an odd array of actors for playing US presidents. While Robin Williams surely looks awkward, the most bizarre miscasting in the movie belongs to John Cusack, who is very unconvincing as, surprise, Richard Nixon. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda seem to having a small fun as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but the movie quickly passes by them to reach to its ending.
Interestingly for the audiences here in South Korea, three films by the director Lee Daniels have been released in theaters one by one during this year. “Precious”(2009), which is still his best work to date, belatedly came early in this year, and then we had a flawed trashy amusement with his next work “The Paperboy”(2012) in this summer, and now we come to watch his latest work as winter is approaching. Compared to his other two distinctive works, “The Butler” feels like a mild safe product, and, though I could understand its good-natured intention and sentimental sincerity, I am not touched enough to recommend it.
The theme seems interesting, recent history seen through the eyes of a white house black butler…..you are on the way to professionalism, addressing the prospective viewers need, earnig his gratitude by saving him time and money……Ebert used to keep the film maker’s perspective also in mind, doing a balancing act between the interests involved…..
SC: Nobody wants to make a bad movie, after all.
The movie does seem a bit tepid, much like Whitaker’s character. I actually thought Cusack was appropriately smarmy as Nixon, even if he looks nothing like the former President.
SC: He looked smarmy indeed – as Cusack.