Lee Daniels’ The Butler


This is an interesting film to compliment 12 Years a Slave. As a movie, it isn’t as good. But as social commentary it is equal to the task, and it picks up not long after 12 Years ends.

What is truly astounding to see and remember is just how much has happened in the last 50 years. And how, in particular, little had changed in the 90 years leading up to civil rights movement… not to mention how much still lingers even today.

The story is full of many moments from history, both archival and recreated. However, the most effective moment in the entire film, I think, is the Woolworth’s lunch counter protest as it is contrasted against other concurrent events. Those few minutes are a microcosm of the entire struggle of the generations both within black culture as it was for the country. That struggle is further revealed between father and son and their choices of how and when to fight; this is what drives the film forward. There is no particular right answer, though you probably wouldn’t be chastened if you felt Whitaker’s (Pawn) character should have done a bit more a bit sooner. But perhaps that is Monday morning quarterbacking by an activist. Whitaker really becomes our steady-cam on history more than a character. He does a fine job, but it isn’t a stand-out performance. Even Oprah’s performance is somewhat tangential, though a tad more subtle than her fictional husband’s. 

As their son, Oyelowo (The Paperboy, Jack Reacher) provides the strongest performance of the family. His evolution from radical to establishment and back to activist is portrayed believably.  It is possible this is because his experience more closely mirrors modern history that he feels more believable, but I think he had more layers and more change than anyone in the story.

And the story itself is epic, covering decades and multiple administrations in the White House. In fact, some of the more astounding performances were the portrayals of the various presidents.

Cusack (The Paperboy) does a great Nixon, both in mannerism and in slow disintegration over his tenure. Marsden (Robot and Frank) does a spotless JFK, while Schreiber (Goon) provides a wonderfully cantankerous LBJ. The last performance of note was Rickman (Harry Potter) and Fonda (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) as the Regans, who come across unkindly, but fairly. 

Danny Strong, of Buffy fame, wrote a serviceable script, though his real talent was more in the selection of what to cover and how to interleave it. Strong’s career is increasingly going behind the camera, where he is achieving some notable success. Daniels (The Paperboy, Precious) directed well, but allowed the story to force him into some weaker pacing choices to get moments later in the film. His understated approach to many of the moments helped the reality, but the choice of voice-over for others and some forced encounters broke the rhythm for me.

The film is far from an objective view of the history, though I’d say it was more than fair. As a window on Gaines’ journey and experience, it succeeded.  Political commentary does make it through, however. The most telling bit is the two presidential quotes they use to close the movie. It is a sad indictment on where we’ve gotten to after such a long road, despite what may have changed, and a reminder of how easy it is to lose.

Yes, of course you should see this film. More for the history than the performances, in my opinion. That doesn’t make it any less important as a sign post and call to action.

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