The best thing, worst thing, and main thing about “The Butler” in about the time it takes to watch the trailer.
Exactly how famous do you have to be to include your name in the title of your movie? Apparently not that famous at all.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” follows one African American’s story as he served at the White House through several administrations and moments of civil rights history. The ins and outs of his family’s life shed light on much of the black American experience for the last century. Right off the bat, it’s likely you’ve heard this movie compared to “Forest Gump” and for good reason, it attempts to capture history through the eyes of someone who found himself brushing up against it. The main difference, being that here, it’s based on the true story of Eugene Allen who served at the White House for 34 years before retiring as head butler in 1986. Forest Whitaker stars as Allen with so many names acting around him that I wonder if they had to brainstorm ways to fit them on the poster. Ok, deep breath. Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Venessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Liev Shreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda :whew: all find their way into this life as family, co-workers and Presidents. It’s a monumental cast, and a monumental topic, but is it a monumental movie?
Well, Its certainly a movie I wanted to love. When a movie’s topic is this important to our continued progress as a culture, there is a built in element of beauty that is hard to ignore. And I’d say that’s the best thing. The Message. Make no mistake, we must continue to look the ugliness of our all too recent history of racism and hate in the face, if for no other reason than to re dedicate ourselves to the value of all human life. and The Butler is a beautiful way to do this. Allowing me, even as a white American, to feel some of that experience in a real and lasting way. This is also benefitted by a couple great performances, Whitaker is of course really good as Allen, but I was blown away at Oprah’s take on his wife. For somebody so recognizable as her own brand to escape that and fall so deeply into this role was pretty incredible. Truly impressive stuff. Those performances, and the built in power of the topic, made many scenes in this film extremely compelling and potent, and yet I didn’t love it.
I think the reason is it felt too much like a cavalcade of cameos. Every ten minutes, instead of staying enveloped by the story, I found myself going, “Wait a second, is that Robin Williams?, Was that John Cusack under that Nixon nose? I’m sorry, did Snape just try to pull off a Reagan impersonation?” It was a distracting game of dress up that gave the whole thing an air of a sketch on a late night talk show. This Presidential parade just didn’t work. The one exception possibly being Liev Shreiber, whose brash portrayal of Lyndon Johnson felt the most natural. I also felt that at times the film came off as a bit too much history lesson and not enough story telling, but considering the topic again that can be forgiven. Oh, and not that it’s a direct part of the movie, but I really was put off by the Lee Daniels’ in the title thing, although apparently it’s was a legal necessity, so whatever.
All of that together though can’t change the fact that “The Butler” is an important, if brutal look into our recent history with some incredible performances, only brought down by the occasional realization that cyclops is playing JFK. I’d grade it a B-.
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