Have you ever watched a film where you left thinking "That was a good film, but it should have been so much better?"
That was the dominating thought after catching the pretentiously titled Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film that feels weighted down by the fact that its writer/director is trying so damn hard to make an important motion picture.
The simple truth is that Lee Daniels has made an important motion picture, but it's a motion picture that could use a little less "important" and a lot more "motion" of character, dialogue and meaning.
Lee Daniels' The Butler wouldn't be half the film it is without the mesmerizing and Oscar-worthy performance of Forrest Whitaker as Cecil, a fictionalized character at least loosely based upon the real life Eugene Allen. Allen worked as a servant in the White House between the 1950's through to the 1980's, but rest assured that Daniels is not really telling his story.
This story kicks off with a rather vicious reminder of racism's not so distant roots when a black field hand is raped and her husband shot by your stereotypical redneck. Left behind is, you guessed it, Cecil, who grows up under the watchful eye of a plantation owner (Vanessa Redgrave) who teaches him to be invisible as a survival skill. He perfects this skill and ends up working as a butler in a Washington hotel, a gig that eventually leads him to an even bigger gig inside The White House where he serves in relative silence under Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Nixon (John Cusack), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Reagan (Alan Rickman). By the time we arrive at Johnson, the civil rights movement is in full swing and the country's chaotic nature is reflected in Cecil's own unstable family including is alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his rebellious and far from invisible son (David Oyelowo). Elijah Kelly is fine as an impressionable younger son.
Cuba Gooding Jr. , Colman Domingo and Lenny Kravitz all do terrific work here as friends/co-workers of Cecil's, while there are some surprise twists within the casting such as Jane Fonda showing up as Nancy Reagan and known Democrat John Cusack as Richard Nixon. For the most part, these work remarkably well though only Alan Rickman really convinces with the required presidential gravitas as Reagan.
There's no question that Lee Daniels is a talented director and a near master at handling material that can easily cross the line into melodrama. After all, this is the same filmmaker who gave us the horrific story of Precious so it shouldn't be surprising that he's absolutely relentless in putting us face-to-face with the best and the worst, the calmest and the fiercest moments of the civil rights moment. One of the film's most poetic sequences involves Cecil serving quietly within the relative safety of the White House walls while his son Louis, a quietly brilliant Oyelowo, fights louder and prouder at a lunch counter that would seem to be a million miles away but isn't.
While Lee Daniels' The Butler is a flawed film being fronted as Oscar bait, it's also a beautiful and thought-provoking film when Daniels steps back and allows the performances to take precedence. Even as an Oscar winner, Forrest Whitaker remains one of our generation's most under-appreciated actors and this performance here should easily snag the actor another Oscar nomination. His scenes with Oprah Winfrey are palpable because the two have a genuine chemistry though Winfrey herself never quite surrenders enough to stop looking like Oprah Winfrey.
Daniels also takes, at times, an almost distracting Forrest Gump style approach to the goings on and it's an approach that is only occasionally effective while more often leading to more musings than anything else. Gaines becomes infused in the stories of his generation, but it's the film's more intimate moments when we are allowed to compare and contrast his life in The White House with his life at home that are the film's most effective scenes.
Daniels is young enough as a filmmaker that it's easy to excuse his occasional manipulations and his need to overly dramatize scenes as if to say "You're supposed to be inspired by this scene." At times, it feels like he doesn't quite trust his audience to get the importance of obviously important material. Rodrigo Leao's original music doesn't really help with its soaring resonance that at times threatens to out emote the actual film. Andrew Dunn's lensing, on the other hand, serves as a perfect companion for the film in being neither servant nor master to its material.
Lee Daniels' The Butler is a good film and those who embrace it are likely to embrace it with full-on enthusiasm. That's all fine and dandy, but as a civil rights lesson it's also manipulative and even occasionally histrionic in presentation. Behind a truly mesmerizing performance from Forest Whitaker, this is a film that is a thought-provoking and beautifully acted film. It's also easily one of the year's first films likely to be remembered come awards season. While it will likely snag a small handful of nominations, Lee Daniels' The Butler is a good film that would have been one of the year's best had Daniels only managed to trust his story and his audience just a little bit more.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic