Monday, September 2, 2013

Forrest Butler

Year: 2013
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
Run Time: 2 hours 12 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

For those of you who think Mr. Daniels needs to get his ego in check, let me clear the air. Due to copyright issues with a 1916 silent short film, of all things, the production company was unable to use their original title, The Butler. Thus Lee Daniels' The Butler was unceremoniously shoved into existence, and it is an enormously cumbersome title that I shall only use as a mark of solidarity to the poor filmmakers who were saddled with it.

Written by Danny Strong (who most notably played Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's hard to tell if this is a step up or a step down), Lee Daniels' The Butler is ostensibly based on a true story. Yeah, so is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Adapted loosely from the life of White House butler Charles Allen, basically the only element they retained was that he was a butler. Oh, and he was black.

Well, we're off to a good start.

People have been up in arms about this film's dubious depictions of certain presidents and historical events to which I respond "duh." It's a historical film about how terribly black people were mistreated in America. The details are gonna be fudged a little to emphasize the emotion rather than 100% accurate historical fact. And anybody who thinks Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last words were about how awesome butlers are probably also thinks that Leatherface is still out there in a nursing home somewhere.

The film follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who was born on a plantation and watched his mother (Mariah Carey who doesn't open her mouth once, thankfully) raped and his father killed by a white landowner (Alex Pettyfer, and a role that is essentially pure evil still doesn't stop me from wanting to make out with him). This super slavey narrative takes place in 1926, and correct me if I'm wrong but that one does feel a little off to me. 

Anyway he is taken in, taught how to serve in a house, and eventually makes his way to the whitest house of all (in more ways than one) serving a variety of stunt casted actors wearing prosthetics. I mean... American presidents. Here's where the Forrest Gumpiness really kicks in as Cecil serves his way through critical presidencies and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) finds his way smack dab into the middle of the Civil Rights movement.

And some pretty fantastic hairstyles.

Louis sits in at Woolworth's, Freedom Rides, hangs out with Black Panthers, and is even in the hotel room with Martin Luther King the day of his assassination. The length to which Strong reaches to cover every last expanse of the movement leads to a scattershot narrative led by events and setpieces that are not so much defined by the world of the movie as they are by the audience's previous knowledge of history.

If you sat a six-year-old, or perhaps a foreigner with little knowledge of American history in front of Lee Daniels' The Butler, all the meaningful lingering shots and presidential imitators in the world wouldn't help them decipher the main storyline. The script relies heavily on narration (Come on, Danny Strong! I trusted you!) and meanders through history from the Eisenhower presidency to Nelson Mandela, eventually skipping freaking decades to the 2008 election.

Now for all the flaws and mostly generic filmmaking in LDtB, it does get its point across. White people were truly awful to black people in America. Even today, that message has value and is an important thing to remember. This is where we came from. Slavery, segregation, and the KKK aren't just fairy tales from a long forgotten time. Some of this stuff happened less than half a century ago. The film's depiction of the atrocities committed against the black community are immediate and affecting in a way that makes one realize history isn't just in books. This all played out on the national stage and there are people alive today who saw it happen.

And one scene in particular stands out as the Greensboro sit ins are intercut with a White House dinner party. This artistic touch shows finally that there was somebody alive behind the camera with a few tricks up his sleeve. Only a few, but at least they're there.

So the movie isn't boring, no not at all. It was quite engaging in terms of raising awareness despite its flaws as a narrative. On the backs of Whitaker, Oyelowo, and Oprah Winfrey especially as Cecil's put-upon wife Gloria, the film is elevated above what could have been a tepid and thoroughly mediocre affair.

As if She would put her support behind something subpar. 

TL;DR: Lee Daniels' The Butler is generic but its depiction of historical events make them more real than any textbook.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Catch it on Netflix when it comes out in a year, you won't mind missing it in theaters.
Word Count: 853

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