Powerhouse performances, historic turmoil guaranteed to incite strong emotions; and yet Lee Daniel's The Butler can't navigate perspectives and history to convey the significance of the subject Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker).
From devastating beginnings on the cotton fields of America's south, to the halls of power in the White House, Butler Cecil Gaines served eight Presidents throughout the defining moments of American modern history (The Kennedy Assassination, The Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam and Watergate to name a few).
It's almost oxymoronic to approach the life of a figure that presided unobtrusively and apolitically in the beacon for western politics in the most socially charged period of American history. Writer Danny Strong attempts to balance the two houses that influence Cecil's (Whitaker) life. Whether it's the premier house in the land interacting with a series of the most powerful men in the world or playing patriarch to a family riding the wave of the civil rights movement whether they like it or not. Unfortunately, there's just too much going on. Instead of being able to sustain the affect of the tumultuous Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon years in the White House, the tale drags with Forest Gump level coincidences, attempting to project meaning upon a man who was on the reserves bench in his working and private life.
Daniels' directorial style does a fantastic job of providing texture to any situation. His previous work The Paperboy made you feel like you were sitting in a sauna as the swamp land reeked of humidity. The Butler gets you to the 'no mans land' of the civil rights movement. German shepards baring hostile teeth, flaming crosses or the casual humiliation of spitting into the faces of peaceful protesters — you'll be on the edge of your seat. This is contrasted by the clinical routine of the inner workings of White house servitude as Cecil is seen polishing individual pieces of golden cutlery, or shining hundreds of shoes. Daniels does fall into the trap of having to resort to clunky exposition and out of place narration to clear up the 'purpose' of the character and film.
The cast rolls deep and there's a plethora of award winning performers chiming in. Whitaker nurses Gaines' southern drawl in a beautifully unobtrusive way. The Oscar winner is locked into a demure and passive demeanour for the duration that you're required to read the fierceness of his internal reactions in his gaze. Oprah Winfrey is spectacular. The media mogul has a very short but prestigious resume under her belt and delivers as Gloria, a mother dealing with the constant stress and unknown of a son on the domestic front line for Civil rights and a soldier on the foreign front line fighting and an all to absent husband. It's in the moments that self medication via alcohol, particularly a scene where she's antagonising her husband's passion for his job whilst applying make-up at her vanity - it's the stuff of award reels.
David Oyelowo as their eldest Louis is the action to his father's inaction. He experiences the torture, lives the defiance, endures the grief of losing Martin Luther King Jr., and even dabbles with the Black Panthers. It's a tremendously versatile performance from a young actor who continues to deliver.
To highlight a few members of the supporting cast that stood out Cuba Gooding Jr. as Cecil's foul mouthed but compassionate colleague; James Marsden did a great job of portraying the vibrant and youthful JFK; John Cusack relished in Nixon's physical and mental demise; while Alan Rickman looked incredible and beautifully embodied the hopelessly ill-informed and inept Regan.
Braveheart's narration put it best when it said that, "history is written by those who have hanged heroes." Gaines was sandwiched between history at work and endured history on the home-front and therefore that vice should and could have resulted in a masterpiece. The Butler burned like phosphorus early but fizzled towards a heavy handed conclusion and 'message' that lands with the finesse of a sledge hammer.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Lee Daniels Written by: Danny Strong (based on the article Wil Haygood "A Butler Well Served by This Election" ) Starring: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Alan Rickman
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