Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Note, this poster was before the title change.
You know, any movie that puts its directors name in front of the title should tell you something.  Sure, they say it was because of a copyright dispute, but at the end of the day it's also telling you that it's going to be one man's reinterpretation of how he wishes history had transpired.

The film, Lee Daniels' The Butler, directed by the titular Lee Daniels, is an indulgent work that is more fiction than it is true.  Does this mean it's a terrible movie?  Not by any stretch of the imagination, in fact The Butler is one of the better made movies of 2013.  It's well acted, well written, and has plenty of moments that are enjoyable or fascinating enough to warrant seeing, but don't expect a history lesson, because that's not what you'll get.

Forrest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, an African American man who grew up on a plantation in the South and eventually became a butler at the White House, serving every President from Ike to Reagan.  A fascinating concept, but one that is only part of the way true.  The real life butler was Eugene Allen, and unlike the movie, his wife was not an alcoholic, he only had one son and that one son was not involved in the Civil Rights' movement, and Allen was reportedly always satisfied with his job at the White House.  What Daniels has done with The Butler is take a concept that is ripe with the potential to recreate fascinating historical moments in the Oval Office, and has rather put that on the backburner to make a Civil Rights' odyssey by fabricating events and characters that never existed to meet his personal agendas.

Honestly, this may sound like I think that The Butler was an atrocity, I just think it could have been more than it was.  What The Butler is, is an enjoyable time at the movies, but it has to be taken as fiction and not as fact.  Unfortunately by saying that it's, "Inspired by a True Story," it confuses audiences into thinking this is the truth, this is why I have a problem with Daniels' fabrications.  Is Oprah Winfrey's portrayal as Cecil's alcoholic wife a towering performance worthy of Oscar attention?  Yes, but it's nothing like the real woman.  Is seeing many of the most important moments in Civil Rights history fascinating from a historical standpoint?  Yes, but the real life butler's son was not a Freedom Rider turned Black Panther who managed to be a part of every single major event in Civil Rights history.  What the film really feels like is Daniels had a desire to make a movie about his opinions on race relations and the Civil Rights movement, and decided to take a story that had very little to nothing to do with it to tell this story.  This is not what makes the story of real life butler, Eugene Allen, so fascinating.

The idea that a man saw firsthand some of our country's most tumultuous times in the one place where you could have the complete truth, that is a story worthy of history, and there are hints of that in this film which is why I'm so frustrated.  There's a scene when Eisenhower is President and it's the first time Cecil serves inside the Oval Office, and it's a fascinating scene to watch.  In it, Cecil is serving the President, basically being a fly on the wall, as he watches the President dealing with important politics with his Cabinet members.  The entire movie could have just been scenes like this and it would have been stronger and more honest to history, and if well researched by the writer of the film, could have been a rare glimpse into the moments that shaped our country as we know it.  As it is, Daniels is obsessed with keeping this a Civil Rights story, and he excludes anything that has nothing to do with it.
Only one brief scene even alludes to Nixon's impending impeachment, and the controversial terms of Ford and Carter are completely skipped over.  Why?  Because the controversy in these times wasn't so much about race relations, but come on, how fascinating would it have been to see the standoff in Iran at the American embassy through the butler's eyes, as he watches Carter trying to negotiate.  Or what about Watergate?  He was there, seeing this firsthand.  Goodness, even the subplot involving Cecil and Caroline Kennedy's special relationship was far more fascinating than the fabricated elements.  This kind of honest movie writes itself, but Daniels wanted it to be something else, and I would have no problem with that had it not been so one sided.

It's obvious that Daniels is trying to make a political statement with this film, and uses shock and awe filmmaking tactics to do this.  The way he represents Cecil and his family working on the plantation is as if they were slaves, afraid of the evil white man watching over them who shot Cecil's Dad just for looking at him after he took advantage of Cecil's Mom.  There was no motivation for this character to do this, and am I the only one that was thinking, this was the 1920s, they were sharecroppers, not slaves?  Or what about the scene where Cecil walks down the street where two black men are hanging from a tree, lynched?  Did things like this happen?  Yes, but did they happen all the time and to one man and his family?  No.

So what do I really think of Lee Daniels' The Butler?  Honestly, I think it's a well made movie that could have been a lot better than it was.  Did I laugh at most of the moments that were supposed to be funny?  Yes.  Did I feel emotion when I was supposed to?  You bet.  It's a great movie at manipulating your emotions, and that's because of the exquisite cast.  Even though all of the superstar actors may not always look just like their famous historical counterparts, everyone from Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Reagan, did phenomenal jobs that really add to the movie.  Then there's Forrest Whitaker, whose subtle, emotionally charged performance really makes you care for Cecil.  While I do not agree with Lee Daniels' tactics to achieve his desired goal, I cannot lie and say I did not enjoy this film as a movie, but as a historical reenactment, it is very one sided.

I give Lee Daniels' The Butler a C!

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