Movie review: 'The Butler' serves a hammy view of history

Published August 15, 2013 3:22 pm
Review • Director Lee Daniels pushes buttons too hard.
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Considering the boiling-over melodrama and hamfisted empowerment messages in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," it wasn't necessary to put the director's name in the title.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which regulates movie marketing, mandated it after rival studios battled over the word "butler."

If you've seen Daniels' past movies, such as the Oscar-winning "Precious" or the Southern potboiler "The Paperboy," you'd recognize the director's stamp all over this bombastic historical drama.

The "inspired by a true story" movie tells of Cecil Gaines, the son of black Southern fieldhands and witness to the brutal racism of the 1920s. When a white plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) rapes Cecil's mother (Mariah Carey) and kills his father (David Banner) with impunity, the owner's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) brings young Cecil into the house to learn the ways of a domestic servant.

Cecil takes that knowledge north to Washington, D.C. – first to work in a swanky hotel, and then in 1957 to a job as a butler in the White House. Cecil, played as an adult by Forest Whitaker, learns from his colleagues (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, among others) the one rule of service at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: Never speak and never listen.

Cecil's placement in the White House allows Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong (who wrote the HBO election comedy-dramas "Recount" and "Game Change") to play "Name That President," enlisting a line of A-list actors to fill the roles.

We get Robin Williams as a dour Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden and Minka Kelly as the charismatic John and Jackie Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as a blustering Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack getting jowly as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda made up to play the Reagans. One feels sorry for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, seen only in news-footage montages, apparently deemed not important enough to have actors wear bad facial prosthetics to portray them.

But the White House scenes are just wallpaper for the movie's real drama, a decades-long battle between Cecil and his headstrong older son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who sees his father's servitude as a disgrace to African Americans.

Louis becomes a full-fledged activist, and — much like Robert Mitchum's character in "The Winds of War" — is present at every major event in the civil-rights movement. One minute he's sitting at a segregated lunch counter, then he's on the bus as a Freedom Rider. He accompanies Martin Luther King at the Memphis motel where he was shot, joins the Black Panthers and so on.

Cecil's devotion to his job also takes its toll on his home life. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), feeling neglected, becomes tempted by alcohol and her horndog neighbor (Terrence Howard). Her scenes seem tacked on, designed not to further the story so much as to give mogul Harvey Weinstein a chance to use Winfrey's clout to pad the movie's inevitable Oscar campaign.

In his reconstructed history lesson, Daniels never misses an opportunity to drive home every emotional beat, pumping up Rodrigo Leão's swelling score as cinematographer Andrew Dunn's camera captures Cecil's ramrod nobility. The historical moments are staged not only to underline their importance, but to clarify the movie's self-importance in restaging or referring to them.

In a movie so overstuffed with explosive emotion, Whitaker's performance stands out simply by resisting the pull of Daniels' sentimental streak. Whitaker gives Cecil's years of silent suffering a graceful dignity as he serves as an observer to these presidents' grappling with seemingly intractable issues of race.

In the end, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" fails because its makers' ambitions outreach their talents to execute them. In striving so hard to be a Great Movie, it misses on being a good movie.


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'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

An African-American servant in the White House witnesses decades of history in the making in this overblown melodrama.

Where • Theater everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, Aug. 16.

Rating • PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

Running time • 132 minutes.



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