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Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Premise: Based on a true story, African American Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker) emerges from working in the cotton fields of the American south and becomes part of the wait staff at the White House, where he serves seven presidential administrations.

What Works: The Butler is a well-made and intelligent story about a man providing for his family and finding his place in American culture. Despite the political backdrop of the movie, The Butler is less about partisanship and much more about an African American family living through years of transition. The filmmakers recognize the tension in the African American experience, in which they are American and yet unable to enjoy the full rights and privileges of citizenship. This is portrayed very deliberately in the opening section of the film, as Gains’ story begins in the Jim Crow era, in which he and his parents live in conditions that were not much better than slavery. As Gains’ works his way to a better life the film constantly reminds the viewer of his less-than-equal status and as Gains raises his family in the midst of the Civil Rights movement that tension takes on new and more complicated forms. The backbone of The Butler is the relationship between Gains, played by Forest Whitaker, and his eldest son, played by David Oyelowo. The two men provide stellar performances. Both are required to transform personally and physically over the course of the movie and their stories retell familiar material in a new way. The social struggles of the 1960s have been portrayed very frequently in Hollywood movies like Forrest Gump and Mississippi Burning but the generational conflict in The Butler puts a new spin on it by directly addressing what the Civil Rights Movement meant for African Americans and how it changed the relationship between the black community and American culture. The Butler is a very skillfully made picture and the filmmakers include a lot of interesting cinematic choices that reinforce the themes. This is an especially well shot and edited picture and The Butler includes some startling juxtapositions of images.

What Doesn’t: Director Lee Daniels, whose other projects include Precious and The Paperboy, is not a filmmaker who is known for subtlety. In The Butler that brashness is usually to the film’s advantage, as the genteel qualities of Cecil Gains contrast with the rudeness and violence of the world around him. The forcefulness of the movie is also frequently appropriate; there is no subtle way to dramatize a Ku Klux Klan rally. But The Butler also frequently spells out its themes and subtext. There isn’t much for the audience to work out on their own and the movie can be criticized for sometimes oversimplifying racial and political issues. The way the African American characters negotiate their place in American culture is presented very intelligently and with a degree of complexity but the portrayal of racism is frequently simplified. Instead of existing at an institutional or cultural level, the racism of The Butler is portrayed more as a personal flaw of bad people. The politics of The Butler are also fuzzy and somewhat contradictory. This is fundamentally a conservative picture. The story reaffirms a belief in the American dream and reinfoces respectful attitudes toward its traditions and institutions. At the same time, the film comes across quite partisan in favor of the Democratic Party; Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Obama come off much better than Nixon or Reagan and the story connects social progress with Democratic administrations. This is another respect in which the film is oversimplified although the presidential politics are generally in the background of the movie.

Bottom Line: Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a very impressive movie with some terrific performances. Its shortcomings are relatively minor and are dwarfed by the film’s considerable accomplishments. This may be one of the best movies about the Civil Rights Movement yet produced.

Episode: #453 (August 25, 2013)