Sunday, February 09, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

If it can be said that a movie is a success but also a squandered opportunity, then Lee Daniels' "The Butler" fits the bill perfectly. It is, undeniably, a powerful movie - one with more than a few sublime moments. But at the end of the day, it also feels like less than the sum of its parts. Had it spent just a little more time on some of its segments while dropping others, it could well have been a masterpiece. It is the rare movie that tries to do too much, but feels as if it should have been longer.

The "inspired by a true story" (we'll come back to that later) focuses on the life of Cecil Gaines, who through a series of tragic (and later, opportunistic) circumstances, makes the journey from field hand to head butler on the White House staff, serving under seven Presidents along the way.  Cecil and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, in a very strong, somewhat surprising performance) raise two sons, one of whom, Louis, leaves home to attend Fisk University in Tennessee, where he manages to either witness or become a part of what seems to be every major development that marked the civil rights struggles, accomplishments and tragedies of the 1960s.

As the movie progresses, we observe the parallel tracks of progress being made by Cecil and Louis - the former being made within the confines of accepted (white) society, the latter coming on the front lines of an essential but life-threatening conflict that amounts to no less than a battle between the forces of good and evil.  The movie juxtaposes the parallel tracks to strong effect, but after a while it becomes a bit too much - and the Forrest Gump-like propensity of Louis to be present during so many landmarks of history strains credulity.  I understand and appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do, but after a while I was reminded of what Roger Ebert once wrote about "Titanic," when he said that there were so many real stories among those on the ill-fated liner, he couldn't understand why James Cameron had felt compelled to make one up.

And the thing is, the movie gets so many things right, from the horror of Cecil's early years, to the detail of his work within the White House, but most of all the scenes in the Gaines family's small but welcoming home. You witness the interaction between the members of the family, the dinners and parties with their small circle of friends, and the contrast between Cecil's work life - where he is a leader - and home, where wife Gloria quite clearly "rules the roost" - and it all feels absolutely real, even vital.

This is driven home in two short but effective scenes.  In the first, Louis and his girlfriend pay a surprise visit to Cecil and Gloria's home, and after a while Gloria turns on the girlfriend like a Grizzly might turn on someone threatening her cubs.  The sheer ferocity in that scene, from Gloria's intolerance of disrespect to her aggressive response to an activism that she might be interpreting (at least in the case of the girlfriend) as a pose, makes one wonder what might have happened had Winfrey decided to act over the course of the past two decades instead of building a multimedia empire.  The second scene is even briefer, a short discussion between Louis and his brother, that just nails perfectly the relationship between brothers.  Although the love and respect they have for each other is obvious, it's also clear that deep down, each harbors a small notion that the other is a bit of an idiot.

Overall, the performances should be divided into two categories: those portraying a President, and everyone else.  Let's focus on the latter, and far more important category.  Suffice to say, everyone is outstanding, to the point of being great - Whitaker, Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Colman Domingo, James Owoyele, and several others.  They all bring their A-games to the enterprise, even those in the smaller roles.  As for the Presidents, I don't know what to say except that it all feels like stunt-casting.  Let's just say that I sure would like to have been in the room when the discussion turned to casting Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan.  But even those actors are all seasoned pros, and their presence doesn't pull the movie down too much.

Would this material have benefited from the mini-series format?  I think so.  Could the movie have been constructed in a way that used real figures from the Civil Rights movement to drive home the same points made by the juxtaposition between Cecil and Louis?  Again, I think so.  But that's not the movie we got - and while the one we did get feels as if it could be even stronger, it is still well worth seeing.

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