Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Butler (advance screening)

Getting kinda tired of seeing posters
for black films that don't show faces.
The immense success of Lee Daniels' film Precious still bewilders me after all this time. It's a totally unsubtle, feel-bad movie that revels in its misery. It has one of the most horrifying antagonists in recent film history, yet it undermines her villainy with a shamelessly bait-y eleventh-hour attempt at redemption. And it has pretensions at hoity-toity "Art" with scenes that take you completely out of the reality of the film. Yet (white) people ate it up, to a degree I would not have thought possible.

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.


  1. I'm always intrigued by the stories behind the history approach. Am I wrong to compare the premise to Lillian Rogers Parks "Backstairs at the White House"? I remember enjoying that mini-series and the source book.

    Your praise for David Oyelowo intrigues me as a performance worth seeing.

  2. **Googles 'Backstairs at the White House'**

    Yeah, I think it's definitely comparable. Now I kinda wanna see that to compare the two.

  3. Sorry, but I can't see John "Say Anything" Cusack playing Nixon. And what is the purpose of casting Jane Fonda, who normally plays a lead role, as Nancy Reagan? Does Nancy have a significant role in this film?

  4. Not anymore so than any of the other cameos. She appears late in the film with Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. She invites Forrest Whitaker to a state dinner.

    I suspect Daniels got all these big stars to do these small roles because he could. Like I said, though, the real story is between Whitaker and Oyelowo.

  5. Interesting comments on Lee Daniels' Precious. A lot of your descriptions of the movie are probably true, but none of them would keep me from seeing and appreciating a movie if it's good, which I think Precious was. "Yet (white) people ate it up". I'd love to see the statistics on this. When I saw Precious in the movie theatre, most of the audience was black. The same was true of the (also excellent) Fruitvale Station, which, as Hollywood luck would have it, does have a black face on the poster. I don't know if I'll see The Butler. The trailer for it looked just as you described it, but I like Forest Whitaker so much, I'll see him in just about anything.

  6. I was specifically thinking of how 'Precious' got nominated for so many Oscars by the mostly white-male Academy when I said that. You're right; black audiences loved it too, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise, but I didn't like it. What can I say?

    The poster thing doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it irks me, especially for a movie that's as high-profile as this. Maybe I'll do a post about it one day.

    My post on 'Fruitvale' goes up on Friday. Outstanding movie.

  7. So glad you liked Fruitvale Station. Apart from several unlikely coincidences in the closing scenes, I thought the movie was perfect (if a movie with such a sad ending could be called thus). I would like to see a post about the posters. I'd never noticed the trend before, but now I'll be on the lookout for it.


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