Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Lee Daniels' The Butler, the latest movie from the Oscar-nominated director of Precious and The Paperboy, is a thoughtful meditation on the history of race relations in the United States, told through the eyes of a longtime White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). We first meet Cecil as a young boy in 1920s Georgia, where he and his family work in the cotton fields of the Westfall family. Cecil is taught by the family matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave, in the small dowager-type roles she occupies so well) to be the perfect servant, so that "the room should feel empty when you're in it."

Cecil winds up working in an exclusive Washington, D.C. hotel, so perfectly embodying the subservient role of meeting guests' whims without their taking notice that he catches the eye of a White House aide, who hires him as a butler. His experience follows the pattern you'd expect, first awestruck then perfectly fitting in, and his service spans from the Eisenhowers through the Reagans.

But while Cecil is perfectly placid at work, his home life is far more tempestuous. Devoted to his work in order to give his family a much better life than he could ever imagine, his wife Gloria (a strong if underused Oprah Winfrey) resents his hours away from home and his refusal to share any secrets of the families he serves. His oldest son, Lewis (a terrific David Oyelowo), wants his father to take a stand against the growing racial disharmony in the country instead of being willing to blend into the background and take orders from white people. Lewis, much to Cecil's chagrin, becomes an outspoken advocate for civil rights, joining the Freedom Riders movement and many other protests in the south.

The film depicts our country's shameful racist behaviors with an unflinching eye, and it is sobering to see. (Even more sobering, of course, to realize that these instances, whether racially or homophobically motivated, still happen in our country in 2013.) But while the film's Forrest Gump-ian journey through civil rights history hits all of the highlights (the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins, Martin Luther King's assassination, etc.), it gives these incidents only cursory glances in an attempt to juxtapose Cecil's work with the battles going on in the world around him and his refusal to get involved.

While the oh-look-who-it-is parade of celebrities playing the occupants of the White House (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan) is interesting, none of their performances are particularly memorable or authentic. Only Cusack's Nixon comes reasonably close. And I wish that Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. had more to do with their roles as Cecil's fellow butlers. (The less said about Terrence Howard's throwaway role as the Gaines' lecherous next door neighbor, the better.)

At its heart, Lee Daniels' The Butler is as much about relationships than anything else, and that is where the actors truly shine. When given more to do than glower, smoke, and complain, Winfrey's performance hints at some of the bravado of Sofia in The Color Purple with a little more emotional vulnerability, but I felt she wasn't used to her fullest potential. Oyelowo hits all the right notes as the son determined to make the world a better place for his people, even if that means sacrificing his family, and I felt an undercurrent of barely simmering conflicting emotions throughout his performance which truly worked.

But the movie, as you'd imagine from the title, belongs to Whitaker. His is a performance of quiet strength and emotion. But he so perfectly embodies the golden rule of servitude, of being seen and not heard, that the movie seems to be more about his observances of situations than participating in them. I still wouldn't be surprised to see him and Winfrey (and hopefully Oyelowo) among the list of Oscar nominees later this year.

The irony wasn't at all lost on me that I was watching this movie on the weekend during which the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was being observed. Undoubtedly, our country has come a long, long way in 50 years, although there is still progress to be made. Lee Daniels' The Butler, although a little heavy-handed in its messaging from time to time, is a good reflection on this history, with some nuanced performances worth watching.

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