I am not one who considers Lee Daniels a competent filmmaker. I know that he has an Oscar nomination for his direction of ‘Precious’ (a film that I personally think was pulled back from greatness thanks in large part to Daniels’ shoddy direction) but at the end of the day, this is about personal taste, and while he seems to have a way with actors he really doesn’t understand film composition very well. All of his films (that I’ve seen) suffer in the very basic way they are constructed, feeling unfocused from start to finish. He has some ideas that could work, but they would need a skilled filmmaker to give them the heft they need to make a real impact and not feel like a poorly executed gimmick.
Oh, where do I begin?
‘The Butler’, or more exactly, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ (the title is already pretentious) tells the true story of Cecil Gaines, although the REAL Cecil Gaines was not really named Cecil Gaines and so immediately it gets you wondering how much of this is true and not exaggerated in order to make this man’s life feel more relevant than it really was. Cecil grew up on a cotton farm, which was all he knew (as we are told, quite unnecessarily, by Forest Whitaker in voiceover), until his father was shot dead and his mother went crazy and he was brought inside the home to learn how to serve. Then he grows up and leaves (Why wasn’t this explained better? Was his family slaves? Were they mere workers? If they were workers then WHY did they put up with what they did and why did their employers get away with what they did, and if they were slaves then how could he just walk away from it all?). He gets a job, a wife and eventually a big opportunity; to serve as a butler in the White House.
He’s there for thirty years, and in the process becomes the Forrest Gump of the Washington D.C., observing the goings on of term after term and President after President and subtle affecting things in the process.
Maybe too subtly.
A major problem with ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ is that Cecil Gaines is a very boring character to play. I understand that the man is repressed for a reason, trained and taught to be invisible (they make sure we are aware of this) but those characters are rarely interesting to watch unless the actor in the role knows how to emote tremendously through the eyes. There are actors who have taken on these roles and sung, but Whitaker doesn’t do too well. It doesn’t help him that the makeup department makes his face look like it is literally melting about halfway through, which is a true distraction. In fact, Cecil is the least interesting aspect of this film, and the fact that he is supposed to carry it on his shoulders is a shame. He is such a non-entity, and the tagline to this movie is a misleading lie, since his ‘quiet voice’ didn’t ignite anything. I would have much rather had the film solely focus on his son, Louis (a tremendous performance by David Oyelowo, who really deserved a better film), who has a real arc and develops such a well-rounded character throughout this film.
But he’s the only one, which is unfortunate. There are so many characters who seemingly have key roles (all those Presidents) and yet they are given such little screen time in order to develop those roles. Each President is given MAYBE four minutes of screen time and most of which is degraded in moments of nothing. We see Eisenhower paint, Nixon yell, Kennedy introduce his family, Johnson poop and Reagan eat dinner. This great cast of characters (and actors) is given NOTHING to do. Sure, they aren’t the main characters, and so we shouldn’t expect them to take over, but the film never develops much on the home front either (outside of some sparsely brushed clichés) and with all the jumping from alcoholic Oprah to some random President to Louis’s personal journey then back to Oprah, the film never finds needed footing to develop a complete story.
And don’t even get me started on the film’s ridiculously tacked on Obama fueled finale.
I want to say this; I understand that this film was using Cecil’s position in the White House to chronicle the Black power movement and the change the country as a whole has undergone with regards to the treatment of African Americans, but that ending just felt…forced. It took the film out of itself and gave it this air of trying way too hard, which is weird because up till that point I was convinced the film wasn’t really trying much at all.
The ensemble is huge, but there are only a few actors who have a chance to make an impression, and even fewer who make a good one. As I mentioned, Oyelowo is clearly the best in show here. Cuba Gooding Jr. is hilarious, but is only there to make us laugh. Oprah delivers a fine performance, but she oversells in key moments (that slap) and comes off like a Soap Opera actress. Yaya Alafia is pretty good, but her final scenes (with the Black Panthers) are ill-played. And then there is Whitaker, who is just there.
I can’t recommend this. It had promise, and the story told is one that is important, but there is so much going on here that nothing gets the proper treatment and the whole thing just feels like message film without a message.
This would have worked better as a television mini-series.
I give this a D. It's really poor filmmaking and at the end of the day, forgettable. I have to applaud the Academy for not falling for this bait and completely snubbing it yesterday morning. It didn't get ONE nomination, and that is pretty awesome.
And lastly, I'm sure you've seen this, but if you haven't you need to head over to The Cinematic Spectacle and see Josh's hilarious review of this film, entirely in GIFS. It is the most inspired and accurate take on this debacle and a post that I honestly wish I had thought of first.