Lee Daniels' The Butler Blu-ray Review
The Civil Rights movement is certainly a compelling subject to explore. Racism unfortunately is alive and well today. I wish LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER did a better job at tackling these important issues. It is entertaining enough, but it doesn’t always ring true for me.
Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, the narrator of this tale. Cecil is loosely based on Eugene Allen, a White House butler for many years. We start out seeing Cecil as an old man waiting for something. He then takes us back to his childhood in Macon, Georgia in 1926. It is there where he works on a plantation picking cotton with his parents. Cecil sees his father (David Banner) murdered after confronting the plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) for raping his wife (Mariah Carey). Cecil stays for several more years after learning the craft of serving before striking out on his own.
The story jumps ahead a few years where Cecil is discovered by a White House staff member at The Hotel Excelsior. He gets a job as a butler in the Eisenhower administration. One problem I have with Director Lee Daniels is some of the stunt casting for the presidents. Robin Williams looks more like Harry Truman than Ike and you never get over the fact that it is Robin Williams in the role. John Cusack is ridiculous as Richard Nixon as he barely gets anything right about him. Liev Schreiber is playing a cartoon version of LBJ. James Marsden and Alan Rickman do a bit better as Kennedy and Reagan respectfully. It would have been wise in my opinion to just cast unknowns in these roles.
Cecil’s family consists of his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey in a nice performance), his older son Louis (David Oyelowo) and his youngest son Charlie (Isaac White, Elijah Kelley as the older Charlie). Daniels and Screenwriter Danny Strong try to go down the “Forrest Gump” route with their storytelling. Cecil witnesses pivotal points in various administrations. He sees Ike wrestling with the school segregation issue in Arkansas. He witnessed JFK in moments of distress with the numerous riots going on. He learns to cope with the brash temper and humor of LBJ. He hears about Nixon’s plans for the Black Panthers. They skip over Ford and Carter. He sees Reagan dealing with the apartheid problem in South Africa. Everything is just so convenient how he can be a witness to all these events. That is part of the manipulation that is going on here that just seems false. Cecil has help at his job with head butler Carter (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and co-worker James (Lenny Kravitz). Carter provides the crude humor that is badly needed at times with this heady material. James is more of a rock who carefully chooses his words.
Gloria is mainly stationed at home trying to raise the two boys. She develops a bad drinking problem and fools around with the neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard in a slick role). She is lonely and taking it out in bad ways. Oprah conveys this in an understated manner that shows deft skill. She doesn’t portray Gloria as a typical slurring drunk. She more suffers in silence and makes bad choices.
The core of the story belongs to the father-son relationship between Cecil and Louis. Louis is a free spirit from the beginning. He doesn’t at first respect the job that his father does. He wants to make a change in the life of blacks. He joins groups like the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers. Strong once again puts a character in key historical moments. Louis is on the Freedom Riders bus that gets torched. It is implied that Louis is involved with Malcolm X’s group when he gets killed. And he’s in the hotel with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis before he is assassinated. Yaya DaCosta plays Louis’s girlfriend Carol through all these turbulent times and she’s more into the movement than he is. I think Daniels and Strong should have focused more on the strained father-son relationship then taking us on a cliff notes version of history. These important dates in history deserve more than a cursory glance that they are given. It cheapens them in a way.
In the end everything gets tied up neatly in a bow. Life isn’t like that. LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER is an uneven trip through history that misses a golden chance to shed light on the civil rights movement. Too much is taken on to tell a coherent story. There is some good stuff on display, but not enough for the accolades that this film received.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: There are nice vivid colors presented in the transfer. All of the fashions of the various times looked great on screen.
Audio: This is a great sounding Blu-ray. It is clear and easy to understand. However there is one scene where Cuba Gooding, Jr’s character is telling a joke and the punch line seems to be edited out. That was odd.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler: An American Story (22:04): This is the behind the scenes documentary with the director and some of the actors involved.
Deleted Scenes (21:07): Nine scenes in all. It shows more scenes from Cecil’s early life on the plantation including more screen time with his friend and with the elderly caretaker. There is more material with other White House staff. There is a cut out scene with Kennedy dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Original Freedom Riders (3:52): The original trailblazers tell their sometimes horrifying tale.
“You and I Ain’t Nothing No More” (1:45): Music video with Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz.
Gag Reel (5:12): There’s some funny stuff here. I especially liked the scene where one actress called Oprah’s character by the wrong name.