Monday, August 19, 2013


Packing your film with a large ensemble cast can be a double-edged sword. Having strong actors to sell your story is a must, but at the same time you need to balance the storytelling so it just doesn’t look like a long line of celebrities playing historical figures. Such is the task for director Lee Daniels and his historical/biographical drama, THE BUTLER.
Based on a true story, Cecil (Forest Whitaker) witnesses the civil rights movement in America while serving as a White House butler over three decades, including the Presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).

THE BUTLER is seen through Cecil’s eyes, and through him we witness the turbulent and historical civil rights movement in America. Cecil is an observer as he watches President after President struggle with the racial strife in the country. The message of racism-is-bad hangs heavily over the film. Director Lee Daniels dances a fine line between heavy messaging and storytelling, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the racial problems in America are an important part of the story. Historical events are not re-created verbatim, but instead we are treated to the private and intimate aftermaths of the big events; one scene in particular, when Cecil is serving distraught Jackie Kennedy just moments after JFK’s assassination, is masterful and heart wrenching at the same time.
Beyond that, THE BUTLER also manages to evolve into a father-son story. Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo) takes the opposite path of his father; while Cecil serves The (white) Man, Louis rebels against it by marching in protests and joining the Black Panthers. There is a strong contrast between father and son which makes for some explosive family drama. This is the heart and soul of THE BUTLER amidst all of the history and it works very well.

Lee Daniels direction offers a quiet and intimate look at every character in the large cast. The ensemble is never distracting, as Daniels uses every important character as a bookmark in the large amount of history the film has to get through. For as good as the editing is, Daniels still could have done some trimming; some scenes at Cecil’s home ramble on way too long with no point, and a wedged-in love affair sub-plot goes nowhere with no consequence.
Forest Whitaker is incredible throughout and has never been better. He is surprisingly matched well with Oprah Winfrey (who plays his wife); Winfrey is the real surprise of the film as she convincingly plays a character and not herself. The cast of the historical figures are tricky to judge because they can easily be divided into two groups. One group looks like the historical figures but sound nothing like them; Robin Williams’ Eisenhower and Alan Rickman’s Reagan fall into that category. The other group of actors sound a lot like their real-life characters but look nothing like them; John Cusack’s Nixon, James Marsden’s JFK, and Liev Schreiber’s LBJ fall into that lot. The division forces the audience to really use their imagination when watching them on-screen. Jane Fonda’s Nancy Reagan is probably the only one who gets the right balance, while Nelsan Ellis is horribly miscast as Martin Luther King Jr. The rest of the cast, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave are all superb. Mariah Carey shows up for five seconds and thankfully doesn’t get to say any lines.

The finale beats you over the head with its pointed messaging and feels a little preachy, but in the grand scheme of things it works because it is a logical place for the story and characters to go. Overall Lee Daniels has crafted a fine balance between historical and human drama in THE BUTLER…one that will serve us well for many years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment

A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.