The Butler Serves Up a Mix of Powerful Moments and Lame Melodrama
Similar to the different views between the film’s protagonist and his son, The Butler is two very different movies. The first film is chalk full of subtle and powerful moments that are extremely emotional. While the second film is the complete opposite: it is boring, obvious and feels like a schlock-fest. Overall, this turns The Butler into a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Meaning the film never gains its stride needed to be a great movie.
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a former slave turned the White House butler for eight Presidents. During that time, Cecil lives through a revolution where many African Americans, including his son, fight for equality. At the core, this film deals with the tension of differing ideology between Cecil’s choice to serve and his son’s decision to revolt.
To be honest, The Butler’s story is ripe with potential. It has the benefit of showing an extremely complex and difficult time in American history. However, it makes a mockery of this complexity with hysterically one-dimensional minor characters. The most ridiculous is the slave owner at the beginning of the film. The film wants us to hate him, this becomes painfully obvious with his actions. First off, he’s a slave owner, a profession that most people today would frown upon. The movie then goes two steps further by turning him into a rapist and cold blooded murderer. Doesn’t this sound like a super villain from a bad parody film? Personally, I like to call this the trifecta of asshole-ness and the way to make your character the worst human being in the world. I understand the movie wants to show people like this in a bad light, but when characters are so evil that they make Ariel Castro look like Gandhi, the movie has a problem (I am not saying Castro is a good person, he is terrible and his actions are unforgivable). In fact, these cartoonish characters pull me out of the movie by making me question why such one-dimensional people were left in a major drama.
Outside of the one-dimensional characters, The Butler has moments that are hijacked by Lee Daniels, the director of the film. Probably the best example of this is a sequence involving the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attacking a bus filled with African Americans. The scene itself is very important in establishing the tension between races and the struggle African Americans faced. Hypothetically, to capture this idea and emotion Daniels could have let the scene play out on its own. He could use performances by his talented cast to capture the hate white Americans dished out and the fear African Americans felt. Instead, Daniel’s resorted to a cheap director’s trick by using slow motion. The slow motion fails miserably and doesn’t mesh with the scene. It stands out and even overshadows the strong performances behind it. To be honest, I was paying so much attention to the slow motion, that emotionally I was pulled from the scene completely. If a director’s decision pulls me from the movie (unless purposefully), the director is doing a bad job. Many of Lee Daniel’s directing decisions emotionally detached me from The Butler.
I purposely said many because Daniels sometimes uses subtly to great success. Yes, this is the complete opposite to what I said a paragraph earlier. Nevertheless, this shift in directing style is why I feel so mixed about The Butler.
My favorite subtle technique is the film’s use of repetition. Daniels takes two scenes and shoots them in the exact same way. However, he changes subtle differences, such as children thanking Gaines in the modern time, while in the past they walked by him silently. These subtle changes help indicate the positive effects of African American’s fighting for equality, without shoving the fact in our face. By not being so intrusive, the scene felt more effective and emotional. To simply put it, this subtly moved me more than some other scenes that are too obvious (I.e. KKK scene). If Butler used that more subtly it would have been a better film.
My final point is actually quite positive. I’m talking about the performance of Forest Whitaker in the lead role. Whitaker is an Oscar winning actor and is usually fabulous in any of his roles. No exception here, as Whitaker carries the movie and brings Cecil to life. Without dialogue we always can tell what Cecil is feeling because Whitaker has so much nuance in his facial expressions. It is truly a great performance and Whitaker deserves an Oscar nod for this role. It’s too bad that the movie around him wasn’t Oscar worthy. Worth a Rent or Netflix. Don’t waste your money on a cinema ticket.