Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is not just entertaining but is also important. A film that reflects a part of our history that is still so socially relevant that it makes us stop and think days after we've seen it, is hard to find. Movies riddled with so much emotion it's impossible to not let it reach your soul and shed tears are few and far between. Usually those movies are showered with Oscars, critical praise and word of mouth. The Butler from director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not one of those films; but it sure thinks it is.
The Butler is inspired by the true story about a black man named Cecil Gaines who worked in The White House as a butler from the Eisenhower to the Reagan administration; a time in our history that was the most revolutionary, especially for black people. While Cecil, who grew up a poor cotton field hand who's father was murdered the same day his mother was raped, was working hard serving Presidents, he had one son fighting for equal rights with the Black Panthers and Freedom Riders and another fighting in Vietman. Wow! Hard to believe a story that good is true, right? That's because it isn't. "Inspired by a true story" doesn't have to mean any of it is actually true. It's a very sneeky Hollywood trick that I think is revolting. The real story is simply about a black man named Eugene Allen who served at The White House from 1952-1986. All the rest of the details are Hollywood hogwash.
However, is The Butler still a good movie if you look past that it's fiction selling itself as fact? Meh. It almost is. The movie is Lee Daniels' most accomplished film by far but that's not sayin much considering that his movies to date have been extremely underwelming. The message in his films are noble and important but he gets so caught up on displaying the over-the-top misfortune of certain characters that it makes the whole thing into a farce. A perfect example is, as I mentioned before, the fact that Cecil's father is killed the day his mother is raped. Either one would be sad but Daniels feels the need to not only make the character suffer both but at the same time. C'mon! We get it. The kid saw some roughness.
Even if you're willin to overlook the gratuitous sorrow in his films, The Butler rushes through every single emotional scene as if it's running a marathon at a sprinter's pace. Not for a single moment are you allowed to sit and feel sad for these characters. Even something as shattering as President Kennedy's assasination is breezed by with careless pacing. It's a real shame because that particular moment is emotional and shown to us in a way we've never seen; how the first lady reacted when she came back to The White House, still covered in blood, and cried for days. Powerful stuff but you only get to enjoy it for about a minute before we're on to something else. That's the theme for this hurried movie that feels like a two-hour-long trailer.
That issue of getting one thing really right and another really wrong is also found in the sets and make-up. The sets and costumes for the film are excellent. The attention to details as the decades move along is spectacular. However the make-up used to transform each actor into the different Presidents and to age the principle actors are SNL-quality at best. The rubber masks they wear are so awful they're distracting and ruin some of the best scenes.
Some things shine in The Butler though. Stars Forest Wittaker (Panic Room, Platoon) and Oprah Winfrey are both so natural and pleasant to watch that they've earned Oscar nominations. The performance from David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jack Reacher), who plays the oldest son, is also good enough to earn a nod from The Academy. The dynamic between these three are excellent and makes me wish the movie focused just on them instead of trying to be some sloppy ripoff of Forrest Gump.
The worst thing about The Butler is that people will call it "great" and "important" and will be nominated for more that it deserves come Oscar season. The subject nature of The Civil Rights Movement is the stuff of automatic respect in Hollywood. That's why it's so upsetting to me when it's done poorly. It's even worse when the film centers around a character who knowingly sticks his head in the sand about the issue for most of the movie. Forrest Gump didn't get involved in what was going on around him but that's because it wasn't his choice. Cecil Gaines chooses to not get involved and it makes me wonder what the true message of this movie really is. Maybe a second viewing would clear that up but frankly, it's not good enough for that.