|Getting kinda tired of seeing posters |
for black films that don't show faces.
Still, I respected Daniels' skill as an actor's director. Anyone who can make serious thespians out of such unlikely stars as Mo'Nique and Mariah friggin' Carey deserves his props for sure. So I was willing to give him another chance. The Paperboy didn't look appealing (although I am told it's underrated), but The Butler - or, Lee Daniels' The Butler, as it's now officially titled after a fight over the name - seemed more my speed, despite its Oscar-bait look.
My friend Reid, a SAG member, alerted me to a SAG screening of the film in midtown Manhattan last month and off we went to it. It was nearly a full house, which attests to the anticipation for this movie.
The Butler is "inspired by a true story" about a black guy who was the White House butler for over thirty years, and the film tries to juxtapose his life with the events of the civil rights movement. Obviously, he couldn't be a direct part of it because of his job, but the movie would have you believe he made a difference too, in his own quiet way.
The first thing you need to know is that this account is fictionalized. The character Forrest Whitaker plays is given a different name than the real guy, and some details are changed. Now, of course, this is far from the first time Hollywood has taken liberties with someone's life story when filming a biopic. Still, I always find it more than a little egregious, even though there are fictionalized biopics that I do like, despite the futzing with history. I guess it's a matter of whether you think the alterations are justified or not.
I was a little let down by this movie. Once again, Daniels gets great performances out of his cast, but the bottom line is that The Butler doesn't really say anything new or different about the civil rights movement. It goes through its march of history, checking off all the important events along the way: JFK, Emmett Till, sit-ins, the Voting Rights Act, Vietnam, MLK, Nixon, etc. Seriously, it really did feel like going through a checklist of things we've seen before, in other movies, on television, and in books. Daniels tries to give the film an epic sense of grandeur, but it never looks epic, though that may simply be a result of a low budget.
Then there's the all-star cast. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to cast so many major stars in supporting roles as historical figures, but all that ended up being, from my perspective, was a distraction. Look! There's Robin Williams as President Eisenhower! Look! There's John Cusack as President Nixon! Look! There's Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan! It took me out of the film because I never saw the characters, I only saw the actors, and in some cases, like Fonda as Nancy Reagan, there's obviously an element of ironic stunt casting. It called more attention to itself than it should have...
... because the heart of this story is about an estranged father and son who view civil rights from two entirely different sides. Let me be the first to campaign for David Oyelowo for Supporting Actor. Whitaker is a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination, but Oyelowo, who has quietly been turning in strong performances over the past couple of years, finally gets a big and crucial role here and he is superb.
I would've preferred to have seen The Butler take a tighter focus and narrow the story down to the father-son element instead of the long, sprawling life-story approach. That would've been different. That would've given this film a more personal feel, although I can kind of understand why screenwriter Danny Strong took the approach he did - a black butler serving in the White House for thirty years is a compelling and irresistible premise to build a story around. As it is, though, The Butler comes across as little more than this year's The Help, a film which I'm sure many will make comparisons to when this is released.