Video On Demand Review: The Butler
January 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
(6/10) The Butler: Lets talk about the elephant in the room: Minority status. Not just race, but minority status. Lee Daniels is a gay, black director. He is the epitome of ‘minority’, the epitome of someone who’s very nature is catnip for progressive politics and the examination of our county’s blemished history when it comes to civil rights for all people. He’s not at a level of vitriol that Spike Lee goes to, like when he made a big hullabaloo about Norman Jewison directing the Malcolm X film a quarter century ago, leading to the studio replacing Jewison with Spike Lee. I therefore found it ironic that Lee Daniels filled his cast with black actors who had achieved the highest levels of success, portraying people who were witnesses to history but not part of it. Forrest Whittaker does an alright job as the even-tempered Cecil Gaines, the real life professional servant who found himself offered a job in the white house due to his excellently a-political banter with various Washington D.C. elites at a private club in the area, to go along with a samurai-like ability to disappear into the wall paper while waiting to serve again.
We follow Cecil Gaines’ life from the cotton fields of the south, when it was still like virtual slavery where the white bosses could do anything they pleased and be immune to prosecution. Through sheer luck, Gaines is taught the white way of life and given access to the white life by way of becoming a “house nigger” as opposed to the “field nigger” his parents were. Every single role is played by a recognizable or name-brand actor, however large or small. Blink and you’ll miss them cameos from Mariah Carrey as Cecil’s light skinned mother to Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower populate the epic production, though none of the roles feel complete.
The story is told in vignettes book-ended by various presidents’ tenures under Gaines’ not-so-watchful eye and Gaines’ own real-life son (played by popular British character actor David Oyelowo) is plugged into the story purely as a plot device to explore the history of the counter culture movements in America that conflicted with Cecil’s conservative presidents. It also heavily implies that one-minute one-off conversations Cecil has with various country leaders directly leads to them having changes of heart that greatly affect foreign and domestic policies.
Oprah Winfrey lightly chews scenery as Gaines’ long-time wife. The role feels like it was re-written just for Oprah and that Oprah took the part in an effort to secure membership in the rarefied EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) family of award-winning entertainers. Everybody else feels, too, as if they’re gunning for gold statues come the end of the year.
Because the film feels so awards-bait-y, it relies upon histrionics in awkwardly condensed scenes attempting to convey issues and time periods that truthfully each deserve their own ten-part miniseries or at least their own three hour film.
Because of this desperate attempt to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink, The Butler always feels like the also-ran it was destined to be, come awards-season, where it’s gotten no actual awards and very few of the nominations it so clearly desired. Still, if it weren’t for the self-conscious recognition baiting, the movie is still entertaining on its own merits as a piece of pop culture fluff.