Lee Daniels' The Butler
Nothing tells you it’s Oscar season quite like the release of films either based a) on a true story, or b) on the civil rights movement; with Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the Lee Daniels’ bit is a legal requirement due to a 1916 film of the same name) you get the BOGOF offer of both: an “inspired by a true story” tale that happens to largely focus on the civil rights movement. The marketing may indicate a broader historical drama, but when a film literally opens with a Martin Luther King quote, it’s hard to confuse exactly what you’re in for.
It’s there that the film falters. Whilst the film’s advertised focus is the “true story” of African-American Cecil Gaines – butler to the White House through the presidencies of Eisenhower through to Reagan – the film instead dedicates the bulk of its runtime to hand-wringing over the subjugation of African-Americans, as if guilt alone is enough to warrant it being labelled “an important film”; which, despite what Oprah Winfrey will tell you in interviews, it genuinely isn’t. The use of historical events as segue ways feels like an attempt to tread similar ground to former Oscar darling Forrest Gump, but while that film maintained a focused narrative and regarded the central character’s interaction with history as a running gag, here it feels heavy-handed and somewhat like a short-changed subplot for the subjugation movie Daniels (who previously directed the laughably overrated Precious) truly wanted to make.
Whitaker is on his usual fine form in the lead, given a decent supporting cast to work with and a well-rounded role to further make his own. Winfrey however fares less well; given the film’s least thought-out and most illogical character to bring to life, Winfrey’s limited acting range dimly relegate (arguably) the second lead to something akin to a dead-eyed zombie. Her motivations change from scene to scene, the life she perceives herself to life entirely different every time you see her, and whilst the political motivations of her casting shouldn’t impact the performance, they somehow seep through the screen at every turn – making the third act inclusion of a certain President incredibly ham-fisted.
When it goes for the civil rights angle, it works; but it’s trying to have its cake and eat it by playing the Forrest Gump card as well, which is a shame given that it’s far and away Daniels’ finest work.
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Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo