By Brent Glass (@BrentAMG)
One small voice can start a revolution. This statement, plastered on the poster above, captures the conceit of the film. There has been much controversy surrounding The Butler since it was announced some time last year. Between the battle over the title of the movie and the negative portrayal of Ronald Reagan (I’ll go in depth on this later), there was much riding on Lee Daniels‘ creation.
Forest Whitaker stars in this highly-anticipated film. The story begins in a Southern cotton field, where Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) and his family work for a very unpleasant family. After watching his father get killed, Cecil gets moved to the house where he learns to serve and be invisible. Fearing a similar fate as his father, Cecil decides he must leave the cotton plantation and find other work. Eventually, after much searching, Cecil becomes a butler. In short, his exemplary talent catapults him into his position as a butler for the White House, which is where the story really begins.
Cecil Gaines’ tenure as a White House butler begins under the Eisenhower Administration. From there, Daniels illustrates the relationship Cecil had with each president, except Ford and Carter. Instead of having actors play those presidents, he created a montage that filled the gap between Nixon and Reagan. All the while, there is another major plot line of Cecil’s son, Louis, and his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Louis does not respect his father’s passivity; he prefers a hands-on approach. He finds himself at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, participating in sit-ins and, eventually, joining the Black Panthers.
I have worked hard not to read too much of what others have had to say about Lee Daniels’ The Butler (by the way, how conceited is Lee Daniels?). However, I have seen enough to know that the reviews are very mixed, and not by separate critics. Some reviews could be mistaken as two polar opposite opinions accidentally tethered into one. For every praise this film manages to salvage from critics, there is certain to be a criticism. I wish I could say that I’m going to take a definitive stance, but I’m not. It’s just too difficult.
What an important film for black Americans. While there have been many movies about emancipation and enfranchisement for African-Americans, there hasn’t been one that has suggested a black butler unwittingly played a subversive role in the quest for equality (by Martin Luther King Jr., no less). But wait, is this movie actually suggesting that this butler played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement because of his proximity to the president of the United States? Why was it that this butler and not one of the other black butlers (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) had such an impact? It was probably the power of JFK’s neck tie.
It certainly was fun to watch some likable actors characterize presidents that, to many people today, are simply names in a history book. Robin Williams was an unbelievable Eisenhower, James Marsden made JFK look like a saint, Liev Schreiber made LBJ look like the jerk-off he was, John Cusack brought life to the brilliant-yet-conniving Nixon we all know and love, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda played Ronald and Nancy Reagan (I didn’t offer a descriptive word for Alan Rickman’s and Jane Fonda’s performances because I’m not sure how I feel about the way Daniels portrayed the couple). There is no denying the liberal overtures presented throughout the film. That is expected and, for the most part, acceptable even to most conservative, semi-open-minded people. However, it is pretty obvious that one is not trying to properly portray someone when they cast an actor who represents the exact opposite of what the historical figure stood for. The example here, obviously, is Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Fonda, a self-proclaimed liberal and feminist, is not going to accurately portray a woman who, let’s just say, did not have those attitudes. The shortfall of each of these performances was that each felt like a Funny or Die sketch. It was difficult see the congruity of the sketches. Conversely, there were some great performances.
Forest Whitaker as the lead role was not disappointing. He delivered with class and precision. The aforementioned sketch scenes may not have been that noticeable to most, only because of the spectacular performance of Whitaker. A breakout performance, in my opinion, was David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines). Immediately, I knew I had seen him before (he was one of the black officers in the first scene of Lincoln) but I had never had an intimate cinematic experience with him at the forefront. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, despite his character not being very likable for most of the film. I would say that accomplishment is a rare talent. Astonishingly, I even thought Oprah did a good job. Honestly, I was not expecting much (and maybe that’s why I think this) but she delivered in most scenes. There was only one scene where I had to wince. Furthermore, the chemistry shared by Whitaker, Gooding, and Kravitz was splendid. The audience felt at home when these three were on the screen.
I do recognize that this film has a natural justice to it, especially for black Americans who lived through the Civil Rights movement. To endure what they did and one day see a black man ascend to the White House must have been something unfathomable. However, I do not believe this actual occurrence secures The Butler’s place as one of the best films of 2013. There is a chance it will be prominent at the 2014 Oscars, but for none of the right reasons. I wasn’t bored throughout the film, but it wasn’t good. It was important but not memorable. I don’t know. Rent it. 7/10
Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working as a freelance writer for Sagamore Institute, creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in either economics, public policy, political science or business.