While most yawn at the prospect of sitting through another historical drama, if done right, the genre can not only be a phenomenal acting showcase but also an educational one. Lee Daniels’ The Butler strikes a balance between the two but offers so much more than your average Hollywood blockbuster.
Follow Cecil Gaines through his monumental journey from an oppressed cotton-picker in the South to his eventual employment as a butler in the White House and conflict with racial inequality during the American Civil Rights Movement that inspired the discord between him and his son.
Lee Daniels attempts to cater towards those looking for character drama and historical drama, but in the end, The Butler is aimed at those looking for a cultural reminder first and foremost and will be appreciated to a greater degree by audiences who place greater importance on story over character.
The Bottom Line
It’s hard to imagine that racial equality in a first world country such as the mighty USA was a war only recently one, most of you reading this will recall South Africa’s struggle in some capacity, but for America, the battle only truly culminated in the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. It’s something so criminal, it pretty much blows the mind at the lengths it took to achieve human decency, and The Butler is the perfect cultural cross-section that behaves as a reminder of this.
Cecil Gaines, a tragic youth in the Southern plantations is trained as a house negro after the murder of his father, and through his teachings musters the strength to run away and solidify his destiny as a servant, making his way up the food chain. The dynamics of the White House were fundamentally similar to the rigidity of his upbringing but with a family of his own, he was now working towards his own goals, albeit at a dramatically reduced figure compared to the white employees of comparable skill.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Forest Whitaker’s performance as Cecil – a skilled character actor, Whitaker is truly a wonder to behold in The Butler. His performance is precise, executed without a hair out of place – a reflection of the film in general – Lee Daniel’s The Butler is a film that runs at the precision of Cecil’s reliable pocket watch…for better or worse, The Butler is anything if not a well oiled machine. Personally I adore the attention to detail in the plot, the visual direction and dedication to the preservation of the authenticity of the setting, however the rigidity is something of a straight-jacket for the development of the characters and because of this, the audience never truly engages with them. It’s a double-edged sword but the precision lends itself to good, tight storytelling and the story is what shines the brightest.
Then there’s Oprah, dear sweet Oprah whose cash clogged arteries just ooze liquid gold and free cars. I couldn’t take her presence seriously at all. When she began her career in the 80s, she was raw and lacking in pretension, but now she simply cannot hide behind a character…in fact her performance is almost caricature-esque, a parody of what it should have been. Perhaps it’s because of her real life tragedy and experience that her performance feels campy, maybe even too real for what it should be, but she isn’t an actress, because any good character actor knows that their objective is to portray the IDEA of tragedy and not the expectation.
Essentially the film isn’t really about Oprah or her character to any lengthy degree but rather the juxtaposition between Cecil (as the obedient servant) and his eldest son Earl(the freedom fighter). Earl views his father as a slave to the white man, a glorified house negro serving away in the big house. Though Earl’s eyes may be transfixed on the idea of his father’s servitude, an encounter with Martin Luther King Jr. reveals that the mere fact the Cecil betrays the white man’s idea of the African as a savage is a sign of defiance. Earl would eventually go on to become a force in the Black Panther Party and lose contact with his father, but this single moment was one of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film.
The Butler is a stunning blend of interactive history and character drama, although one would be more inclined to acknowledge that Lee Daniels does a better job with the former. It’s powerful and at times a little schmaltzy with it’s overused musical score, but for a South African audience, The Butler is an aspect of human culture that should be witnessed.